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Energy Secretary?s Action on Radioactive Metal Falls Short,

Jan. 12, 2000

Energy Secretary?s Action on Radioactive Metal Falls Short,
Still Allows Radioactive Waste in Household Products

        WASHINGTON, D.C. — Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson’s anticipated announcement that the department will temporarily halt the release of some highly contaminated radioactive waste for recycling into household products falls far short of protecting the public, Public Citizen said today.

        According to reports in today?s New York Times and on Tuesday?s CBS News, the DOE will stop releasing volumetrically contaminated waste until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) creates a federal standard for the amount of radiation that can be contained in a product made from recycled waste. (Volumetrically contaminated waste is contaminated throughout by radioactive particles, the way sugar is distributed throughout a cake. The waste includes such things as nickel from DOE?s atomic bomb-making factories and steel from nuclear power plants.)

        However, the DOE?s action still will allow surface-contaminated waste to be recycled. This is waste that is contaminated only on the surface — for instance, pipes or wires that have been exposed to radiation.

        “Secretary Richardson should come clean with the American people about what the DOE?s agenda is for nuclear waste,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “He should not try to white-wash the department?s precedent-setting, quarter-of-a-billion-dollar contract with BNFL Inc. for recycling radioactive waste from the massive, inactive uranium enrichment facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn.”

        The contract would have allowed 126,000 tons of waste to be recycled into common household products such as belt buckles, zippers, frying pans, forks and baby carriages. Because just 6,000 tons of that waste was volumetrically contaminated,the DOE still will permit 121,000 tons of waste to be recycled. The Energy secretary is attempting to straddle the political fence by responding to public concerns but is moving ahead with what the nuclear industry desires. It is important to note that DOE did not give the public an opportunity to comment on the contract.

        “Even if you believe that metal contaminated on the surface by radioactive isotopes can be adequately cleaned — and we believe it can?t — who could possibly believe the DOE can competently carry out a radioactive recycling program?” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy Project, which monitors the safety of nuclear facilities and the disposal of waste. “Putting the DOE in charge of radioactive recycling — particularly in light of the agency?s long and painful history of blatant misconduct — is like putting a mass murderer in charge of a victims’ rights program.”

Radioactive Recycling Backgrounder