Release of Radioactive Metals Still Poses Threat;?Government Takes a “Stall and Study” Approach

July 14, 2000

Release of Radioactive Metals Still Poses Threat;?Government Takes a “Stall and Study” Approach

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

A battle has been raging over whether consumers should be exposed to radioactively contaminated metals that are recycled into consumer products. Consumer advocates want to permanently halt the release of radioactive materials from weapons facilities and nuclear power plants through legislation. Yesterday, as a result of pressure from citizen groups, unions and the steel industry, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that release of radioactive metals from government facilities would be temporarily halted.

We are pleased to see that Secretary Richardson is taking the problem of radioactive recycling seriously and is providing some temporary protection for consumers from being exposed to radioactive metals in consumer products. However, this does not mean the battle is over. There are a number of loopholes to consider:

One, the action is a discretionary decision, not a regulation. It lasts only as long as Secretary Richardson or the next secretary of the Department of Energy keeps it in effect. The secretary should immediately begin a rulemaking procedure to make the directive permanent.

Two, only government facilities are covered. Case-by-case releases of radioactive materials from commercial nuclear power plants, which are regulated separately by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), can continue.

Three, the NRC is proceeding to set a standard for the amount of radiation that the public can be exposed to from products containing recycled materials from government and commercial plants. The NRC already has indicated in its written documents that it favors setting a standard that allows releases of radioactively contaminated materials such as metals, concrete, soil and plastic.

Fourth, several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, are meeting with representatives from other countries to discuss setting a “world” standard that would be governed by the World Trade Organization and could preempt domestic standards under international trade rules.

Secretary Richardson?s announcement should not lull us into complacency. The nuclear industry still intends to “recycle” its toxic trash into consumer goods and has been using its considerable political clout to influence the standard-making process. Setting a standard does not solve the problem, unless the standard does not allow any releases above detectability. Our elected members of Congress should put the health and safety of their constituents first and take legislative action that goes beyond studying and temporarily delaying radioactive recycling. We want a complete prohibition against the release of radioactive material for consumer products or into the household waste stream. Nuclear waste must be isolated from humans and the environment.