New Hampshire SentinelSource

Saturday, July 29, 2000

Sentinel editorial: On what to do with radioactive scrap (7-29-00)

Good news. The eyeglass frames you buy a few months from now may not be radioactive. Ditto the kids' next set of braces and the stainless-steel cookware you get for Christmas.

Last week, the Energy Department ordered an end to commercial recycling of slightly radioactive metals left over from government weapons production. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the government will eventually develop a new recycling standard that will "ensure American consumers that scrap metal released from Energy Department facilities for recycling contains no detectable contamination from departmental activities."

That's nice. Unfortunately, the government has been selling thousands of tons of mildly radioactive metals for several years now, so you have no way of knowing how much of the stuff you're already exposed to. The Energy Department can't say exactly how much hot stuff it has sold and mixed with other metals to make consumer goods, and it has kept no records of where and how it's been used.

Chances are, there's no danger to anyone who handles one or two items. But if you've been walking around with slightly radioactive braces, a slightly radioactive watchband and a slightly radioactive zipper, and you've been using a slightly radioactive hammer, eating with slightly radioactive flatware, driving a slightly radioactive car and walking around with a slightly radioactive pin in your leg, you may have a slight problem. Nobody really knows.

As welcome as Richardson's announcement was, only half the battle has been won. The Energy Department is in charge of weapons materials only. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has responsibility for scrap left over from decommissioned power plants, hospitals and other private institutions. Like the Energy Department, the NRC has been thinking about a new minimum level for recycled radioactive materials. For now, the standard it uses is called "ALARA." That stands for "as low as is reasonably achievable." That sounds as if the public safety will be assured as long as the interests of private industry aren't unreasonably affected.

A year ago, when the NRC asked for public comment on whether it should continue to allow radioactive scrap to be molded into commercial products, this newspaper suggested that the ALARA standard be replaced with an ALAN standard: as low as necessary. The acronym is much spiffier, and after all who wants to use a slightly radioactive IUD? The NRC is still reflecting on what the new standard should be.