Did Anyone Lose a Cesium Rod? Disaster Narrowly Averted in Taiwan Incident

March 14, 2002

Did Anyone Lose a Cesium Rod? Disaster Narrowly Averted in Taiwan Incident

Meanwhile, U.S. Government Intentionally Releasing Radioactive Materials Into Market

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? A recent incident in Taiwan, in which a 62-pound rod of cesium was pulled from a pile of scrap metal prior to being melted in a steel works furnace, is yet another sign that nuclear materials and waste are being handled improperly and that nuclear regulatory agencies are not safeguarding the public, Public Citizen said today.

Further, the incident should be noted by U.S. government agencies charged with regulating nuclear waste, because they are now attempting to introduce additional radiation sources into consumer products and the environment by permitting radioactive waste to be recycled, Public Citizen said.

Wednesday?s Taipei Times reported that the cesium rod, which was highly radioactive, was discovered mixed with non-radioactive metal scraps on a truck at a steel foundry that operates a melting furnace. Taiwan officials said they didn?t know where the rod came from.

Had the rod been melted in the foundry?s furnace, there would have been an extremely hazardous radioactive emission, creating an immediate health hazard and seriously polluting the environment. The cesium rod emitted more than 270 times the radiation per hour than recommended by the International Commission on Radiation Protection.

Similar incidents in the United States have not always had such a fortunate ending. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that at least 26 accidental meltings of radioactive material have occurred in the United States since 1983. This number accounts for more than half of the 49 accidental meltings worldwide that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had tallied as of 1998.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is notified of approximately 200 lost or stolen radioactive sources each year. While some radioactive materials are found in or near scrap yards, metal foundries, factories or recycling facilities, others are handled unknowingly by non-nuclear workers or even sold in stores. In the United States in the past six months:

  • A foreign shipment of iridium, delivered from overseas by standard couriers and with no detection by the U.S. Customs Service, arrived in New Orleans by truck before it was determined that the package was leaking high doses of radiation.
  • Radioactive tools were stolen from a Utah nuclear waste facility and sold to at least one local pawn shop. The pawn shop was unaware that the tools were radioactive and subsequently sold the tools to a third party. Some of the tools are still missing.
  • The U.S. Army detected cesium-137 and cobalt-60 throughout a wooded area within the city limits of Anniston, Ala., a short distance from a community center.
  • An industrial radioactive device used to measure soil density was found on the steps of a pawn shop in Prichard, Ala.

“The government should heed the warnings provided by these incidents and the Taiwan episode,” said David Ritter, policy analyst with Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “This ought to make them change their minds about the very bad idea of putting radioactive materials on the common market.”

These incidents include only accidents and thefts, however. Authorities are simultaneously sanctioning the intentional releases of radioactive wastes from nuclear facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors, or licensed by the NRC. This is done on a case-by-case basis. The wastes are released without restriction and can be dumped in a municipal landfill, incinerated, sold or donated “as is,” or even recycled into a plethora of everyday consumer products and industrial materials.

Now, the DOE and NRC are pushing nuclear industry-friendly policies to standardize and increase the release and “recycling” of radioactive wastes.

“These agencies are truly captured by the nuclear industry, and the industry is trying to greenwash their latest scheme with terms like ‘recycling’ and ‘beneficial reuse,’ ” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “If the ‘recycling’ practice doesn’t lead to major savings or profits for those who make the mess, it’s still a handy way for them to evade liability for their waste. But the American public doesn’t want to come in contact with nuclear waste. They don’t want their kids to ride bicycles made of nuclear waste. We need to ban this practice once and for all.”

Ritter noted that people would never opt to buy products made from “recycled” radioactive waste.

“If you were in a store, and could choose between the non-contaminated frying pan or the one with the label that said “slightly radioactive,” which one would you pick? If the nuclear industry had to tell us which products their nuclear reactor and weapon waste goes into, we know the practice would stop immediately. Unfortunately, labels aren’t required.”

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For more information on the incident in Taiwan and radioactive materials recycling, click here.