Legal Loophole Opens Floodgates: Radioactive Metal Can Be Used in Household Products

July 7, 1999

Legal Loophole Opens Floodgates: Radioactive Metal Can Be Used in Household Products

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A recent decision in a federal lawsuit will result in the continued recycling of thousands of tons of radioactive metal for use in household products because of a loophole in the Superfund cleanup law.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit sought to force the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to conduct an environmental impact study of a $250 million DOE contract awarded in 1997 to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) to “recycle” radioactive metals from uranium enrichment plants in Tennessee. Such a study would have delayed and possibly prevented the reuse of the radioactive metal.

“The BNFL contract is precedent-setting and is resulting in an experimental recycling process that will allow an estimated 100,000 tons of radioactive metals to be sold as scrap metal for use in items ranging from frying pans to baby carriages,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project.

In a June 29 decision, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler of Washington, D.C. used strong language about the danger this recycling poses to the public but said she could not order the DOE to write an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) because, under a provision of the Superfund law, citizens are barred from bringing suit until the cleanup is completed.

The judge described as “startling and worrisome” the absence of opportunity for “public scrutiny or input on a matter of such grave importance.” She went on to say that “the lack of public scrutiny is only compounded by the fact that the recycling process BNFL intends to use is entirely experimental at this stage.”

The judge said that “the potential for environmental harm is great, especially given the unprecedented amount of hazardous materials which the Defendants seek to recycle.”

The nuclear industry, in cooperation with the federal government, has been attempting to “deregulate” radioactive metals from weapon facilities and decommissioned nuclear power plants since the 1970s. Public Citizen and other citizens organizations have successfully organized to prevent this recycling prior to the recent BNFL contract.

The lawsuit was brought by the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union (PACE), the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and other groups.

“Public Citizen, NIRS and other organizations are engaged in a campaign to educate consumers about the threat to their families health by the recycling of unknown quantities of radioactive metal and other materials with unknown levels of radiation into products that reach their homes,” Hauter said.