Incinerator firm under fire
Technology to recycle radioactive metals questioned

Saturday, March 25, 2000

By Anne Minard
Journal Staff Writer
POCATELLO - The company that plans to build a nuclear waste incinerator in Idaho also wants use recycled nuclear waste from Tennessee in common household items like children's braces and eating utensils.
But court documents conclude the technology to recycle radioactive metals - approved in a 1997 Department of Energy contract - could endanger the public.
Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said he will put British Nuclear Fuels Limited Inc. under "close scrutiny" following a petition filed Thursday by local environmental groups. The petition asked Richardson to "suspend and debar" the company's activity in the United States.
The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory is one of five U.S. sites that will undergo "immediate, top-to-bottom review," to be completed by May, as part of an international investigation of BNFL's track record. BNFL is scheduled to begin construction of a radioactive waste incinerator at INEEL this year. Other sites include the Hanford site in Washington, Rocky Flats in Colorado, Oak Ridge in Tennessee and the Fernald site near Cincinnati. An investigative team will also travel to the United Kingdom to consult with nuclear regulators about BNFL's history there.
The Idaho-based Snake River Alliance, Jackson, Wyo.-based Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free group, and the national Government Accountability Project filed the petition. Past accusations - expressed by the local groups during February public hearings about the proposed incinerator - had stemmed mostly from confirmed incidents abroad involving the falsification of inspections records. In a move that some say was surprising, those groups were joined by a labor union at the Oak Ridge site, which is in the midst of legal proceedings against BNFL alleging dangerously lax intentions.
Following pilot testing of the technology, which entails recycling radioactive nickel for distribution in everyday-use products, a court battle emerged. BNFL claimed to have exclusive experience in the technology, but when it came time to implement it, it was discovered the company had no patent to use or sell it. Court documents allege the company misrepresented its ability to use the technique.
The suit, now in an appeals court, was brought about the labor union in Oak Ridge. While U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled the lawsuit could interfere with cleanup of a related Superfund site and was therefore illegal, she outlined clear concerns resulting from more than a year of full legal disclosure.
"The potential for environmental harm is great, especially given the unprecedented amount of hazardous material the defendants (BNFL) seek to recycle," she wrote in the June 1999 document. She went on to write that BNFL had not provided evidence of the safety of recycling nickel from a nuclear plant, as opposed to other methods.
"The court is further concerned by the fact that no national standard exists governing the unrestricted release of contaminated metals," the finding reads. "Plaintiffs (the union) have also raised legitimate concerns as to the lack of public notice and comment surrounding the entire process by which defendants settled on recycling as a disposal method." Kessler also described the recycling process BNFL used as "entirely experimental."
"The process has not been implemented anywhere on the scale which this project involves," she wrote.
"There were no real facts as to why they're petitioning what they are," said David Campbell, manager of external corporate affairs at BNFL of a press conference surrounding the filing of the petition Thursday.
Repeating what has been said by local BNFL spokesperson Ann Riedesel, he welcomed the "close scrutiny" that Richardson has announced.
"We welcome outside review," he said. "We think it will show that operations are technically and operationally sound."

Anne Minard covers science and the environment for the Journal. She can be reached at 239-3168 or by e-mail at

BNFL under fire
Jim Hall, of the Department of Energy, testified in 1998 that British Nuclear Fuels may have had no experience in a technique to recycle radioactive metals. However, a contract to use the technique has been awarded at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear site. The following excerpt was taken from his statements:
Hall: "... we sell a product that is released that meets all the standards for release, and where it goes from there is not our concern."
Q:"So, for example, it could go into a metal joint for a hip replacement?"
Hall: "Yes."
Q: "And it could go into spoons used for eating, right?"
Hall: "Yes."
Q: "It could go into children's braces?"
Hall: "Yes."
Q: "There's no restriction on the end use?"
Hall: "No."

Back | Home | Forward | Top | Other News Stories