Getting Its Foot in the Back Door: Energy Department Could Ignore Process and Quietly Resume “Recycling” of Potentially Radioactive Metals

Dec. 12, 2001

Getting Its Foot in the Back Door: Energy Department Could Ignore Process and Quietly Resume “Recycling” of Potentially Radioactive Metals

Public Would Be Asked to Trust That Metals from “Hot Areas” Are Radiation-Free

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? In what public interest groups deem a betrayal, certain U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials are pushing a proposal that would allow the “unrestricted release” ? including recycling ? of potentially radioactive metals from DOE nuclear sites. The plan directly violates the spirit of previous DOE policy and would quietly reverse DOE?s July 2000 decision to suspend the release of potentially radioactive metals. The plan was outlined in a draft memo from the department?s Field Management Council (FMC) that Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) recently acquired.

The DOE is currently conducting an environmental review of how to handle radioactive scrap metal from DOE sites (the process is called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on the Disposition of [Radioactively Contaminated] Scrap Metals). This process includes a planned public comment period and hearings on the various alternatives for the disposition of potentially radioactively contaminated metals generated by DOE nuclear activities. The metals at issue can be sold and used to make a wide variety of retail goods and industrial materials.

The FMC proposal would essentially bypass the current environmental review process by pre-selecting one of the alternatives under consideration by the DOE. Should the proposal be approved by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, there would be no public review, participation, comment or notification. Amazingly, the memo states that “this action will not bias the analysis” of the ongoing review.

References to “scrap metals that may have originally contained small, but acceptable quantities of residual radioactivity” and “the Oak Ridge complex?s initiative to recycle metals with acceptable level[s] of residual radioactivity” indicate that the DOE is again aiming to unload thousands of tons of radioactively contaminated waste and materials upon American businesses and consumers.

The PEIS process itself has not been without problems. In early 2000 the DOE hired Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to perform the environmental review. SAIC had previously been terminated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a substantial conflict of interest because it had a financial interest in a quarter-billion dollar contract to recycle radioactive metal from the DOE?s Oak Ridge, Tenn., complex, and at the same time was creating a report for the NRC to use as a guide for releasing and recycling radioactive materials from its own facilities. After Public Citizen, NIRS and other public interest groups met with DOE officials in July and pointed out SAIC?s questionable record, DOE revoked its contract with SAIC to perform the environmental review.

“This latest back-door maneuver makes it crystal clear that DOE?s ultimate goal is to release and disperse radioactive materials,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The PEIS process has revealed strong public, environmental and metal industry opposition to radioactive recycling. So now DOE is plotting another step to recycle this stuff in complete disregard of its own environmental review process. It may be in the DOE?s financial and legal interests to toss its nuclear waste into our homes, but Americans have always been strongly opposed to the idea.”

“DOE is destroying whatever fragments of credibility this troubled process has left by attempting to secretly reverse the one good policy they have ? prohibiting radioactive metals from getting into commerce,” said Diane D?Arrigo, Nuclear Information and Resource Service project director. “In addition, DOE continues to send other contaminated materials out into the marketplace.”

Dave Ritter, policy analyst with Public Citizen?s Critical Mass, agreed. “What Americans really want this holiday season is assurance from their government that radioactive waste will not be recycled into metal, concrete, soil, plastic or any other product. Instead of a clear and unambiguous ban on this practice, the DOE is trying to side-step its own process.”

Public Citizen and NIRS are submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to the DOE for all materials relating to the development of the FMC memo.