by Danielle Knight
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
metal could end up in everything from dinner forks and knives to children's dental braces if the Bush administration lifts a ban on recycling scrap metal from nuclear weapons and reactors, activists warn.
A Department of Energy (DOE) review of the ban, instituted by former President Bill Clinton to protect the public health, was announced in July and is in full swing.
The review would include a series of public hearings throughout the country, the energy department said at the time. Environmental and public health advocates say the process portends a reversal of the ban but DOE spokesperson Joe Davis says no decision has been made.
"We aren't leaning one way or the other," Davis told IPS. "We are reassessing the ban and simply engaging the public and trying to gage their concerns."
The DOE estimates that one to two million tons of scrap metal could be recovered by dismantling old nuclear weapons and reactor facilities.
The energy department established in the early 1990s radioactivity limits on metals that are recovered from nuclear sites. Environmentalists, however, argue that much of the metal debris now banned from being reclaimed contains potentially harmful residual radioactivity.
Environmental and nuclear watchdog groups argue that exposure to radioactive material increases the likelihood of cancer, birth defects, reduced immunity, and other negative health effects.
"If radioactive materials are sold into the marketplace, the public could be exposed to radioactive products consistently and over long periods of time, all without their knowledge or consent," says Diane D'Arrigo, director of the radioactive waste project at the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).
Beth McConnell, an activist with the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group, says she thinks the DOE would rather endanger public health than pay to have the metal managed as radioactive waste.
"Radioactively contaminated metals from the nation's nuclear facilities could end up in everything from spoons and zippers to belt buckles and children's braces if the Department of Energy goes forward with this irresponsible plan," she asserts.
Activists complain that repeated requests for data under the Freedom of Information Act have yielded no records to indicate the scale of recycling to date. Likewise, there appear to be no comprehensive statistics on the health and other effects of exposure to residual radioactivity from recycled metals.
D'Arrigo, however, recalls reports of ailments among couples whose wedding rings were made from recycled gold and among occupants of a Taiwanese building constructed with recycled steel.
The energy department, under Clinton-era Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, established a moratorium on contaminated metals from any DOE location and suspended the recycling of metal from nuclear facilities. These measures were in response to criticism of a DOE laboratory in California, which reportedly sold 300 tons of metals from old reactors that contained residual radioactivity.
Richardson said the suspension was part of a new policy aimed at ensuring contaminated materials were not recycled into consumer products.
"I am making this decision to ensure American consumers that scrap metal released from Energy Department facilities for recycling contains no detectable contamination," he said in July 2000. The moratorium, he added, would remain in effect until nuclear sites confirmed that they had met a "new more rigorous standard."
While advocacy groups applauded the move, some organizations have criticised the moratorium for not going far enough to protect the public. D'Arrigo says the ban should be expanded to include other kinds of materials, including plastics and concrete.
"The DOE must permanently prohibit the release of radioactive metals and expand the current ban to include all nuclear waste materials," she says.
David Ritter, energy and environmental policy analyst at Public Citizen, a Washington-based group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, says it is difficult to track what radioactive materials have been recycled into everyday products because the DOE does not release this information to the public.
"We are urging the Department of Energy to stop dispersing any radioactive materials -- such as concrete, soil, asphalt, plastics, wood, metals and more -- into municipal landfills and the open marketplace," says Ritter.
The Energy Department is accepting comments on recycling scrap metal until Nov. 9. It expects to release a final environmental impact statement around July 2002 and says it will announce a policy decision a month later.
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