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Theft of “Hot” Tools from Utah Facility Shows Dangers of Widespread Release of Radioactive Materials

Feb. 25, 2002

Theft of “Hot” Tools from Utah Facility Shows Dangers of Widespread Release of Radioactive Materials

Consumers Should Take Tools to Tooele Health Officials to Ensure Safety

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? The recent theft of radioactive tools from a Utah facility underscores the dangers of the federal government?s plan to allow radioactive materials to be released into general commerce and recycled into household goods, Public Citizen said today.

Envirocare of Utah, a nuclear waste facility licensed by the state of Utah, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has failed to maintain control of an undetermined number of radioactive tools, according to a Feb. 21 article in The Salt Lake Tribune. Envirocare operates the nation’s only commercial mixed waste (radioactive and hazardous) facility, a 640-acre landfill located about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. It is used by commercial nuclear industries and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to store radioactive waste.

Officials believe the tools were shipped to Envirocare from nuclear facilities and likely became radioactive by coming into close proximity with radioactive materials. Not only did a former Envirocare contractor employee steal radioactive tools from the facility, but the same individual sold them to at least one store, a Tooele County pawn shop. At least one third party has purchased the “hot” tools, unaware of their radioactivity. It is not known how many tools are missing, how many people are involved in the thefts, who bought the tools or where the tools have been distributed. Utah officials are now trying to round up the tools.

The incident illustrates the porous nature of nuclear waste facilities and underscores the dangers associated with the government?s policy on radioactive release and recycling, said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

“It’s disturbing that even after Sept. 11 and the subsequent tightening of nuclear security, we have radioactive materials getting into the general environment,” Hauter said. “Unfortunately, our own government wants to standardize and expand practices that would allow a proliferation of radioactive waste. It would be shipped to facilities throughout the country and released widely. Even with controls, it likely would end up where it shouldn?t be.”

Now, DOE weapons facilities and commercial nuclear facilities licensed by the NRC ? including reactors ? may release radioactive materials on a case-by-case basis. The materials can be sent to unlicensed community landfills, incinerators and facilities that recycle the materials and sell it to manufacturers that make consumer goods. The government has been unable to say just how much metal has been released and recycled.

Even more materials may be released in the future. The government ? under heavy pressure from the nuclear industry ? is considering allowing the “unrestricted release” of potentially radioactive metals from DOE nuclear sites. This would allow large quantities of radioactive scrap metal to be dumped into municipal landfills or recycled into everyday household products and industrial materials.

The Utah Division of Radiation Control has offered a mixed message. A division representative told the newspaper that officials don?t believe the radioactive tools pose a “significant” health threat but they should be collected and disposed of.

“I doubt that the state would issue the equivalent of an all-points-bulletin on the tools if they posed no threat,” said David Ritter, policy analyst at Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “It seems contradictory for Utah officials to be desperately rounding up radioactive tools while the federal government is hatching a plan that could put radioactive goods on shelves throughout the country.”

Public Citizen urges anyone within 100 miles of the Envirocare facility who has purchased used hand tools since December 1999 to take those tools to the Tooele Health Department for inspection.

Public Citizen is also raising questions about a potential conflict of interest involving Lynda L. Brothers currently serves on the National Academy of Sciences Research Council committee that is studying the release and recycling issue for the NRC. Brothers was counsel to Envirocare?s board of directors during the first two months of the study. The Web site of Brothers? law firm, Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, boasts that the firm’s activities include “counseling on the avoidance or minimization of environmental liability.”

The National Academies’ Research Council is supposed to provide independent advice to the government.

“Brothers? prior connections certainly seem to strain the notions of independence, objectivity and credibility on this issue,” Ritter said. “Even if Envirocare stands to gain nothing from recycling, it doesn’t appear that the Research Council has chosen an independent committee member. With this person on the committee, how can the NRC hope to live up to its stated mission?”


Click here to go to an Action Alert on the Toole County radiation inspection program.