The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, August 18, 2001

Bush should lift tainted recycling ban

The Bush administration should move quickly to clean up one of the tainted legacies of the Clinton era the politically motivated ban on the sale of recycled metals from Department of Energy nuclear facilities.

Congressman Zach Wamp of Tennessee accurately described the decision last summer to suspend sales of nickel and other scrap metal as "nonsensical" and an attempt by former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to "pander ... to key constituencies."

The Bush administration currently is holding public hearings to gather information before deciding whether to lift the ban.

Richardson's ban stalled a move to recycle about 9,700 tons of nickel in a scrap yard at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. A recycling facility would create about 40 jobs and generate $10 million in sales that would be used to mitigate job losses at the Paducah plant.

The announcement of the suspension of recycled metal sales came as Vice President Al Gore was attempting to shore up his political base in preparation for the fall campaign.

The decision appealed to organized labor, which wanted to keep metal off the market that competed with the U.S. steel industry; and environmental groups that religiously oppose anything with the word "nuclear" attached to it.

Richardson cited a need to protect consumers as the reason for the suspension. This gave credence to hysterical warnings that contaminated metals were ending up in the mouths of children with braces.

In truth, no child's teeth were in danger of glowing in the dark because of the recycling of nickel ingots from DOE scrap yards.

The radioactivity in the nickel produced in the decontamination process is below detectable levels. According to the Wall Street Journal, the radiation level of the recycled DOE metal is below that of salt-substitutes sold at grocery stores.

Even so, Richardson suddenly proclaimed a "no detectable contamination" standard for the recycling. This standard has nothing to do with science or consumer safety; numerous studies have shown that low-level radiation is not harmful to humans.

Richardson's hypocrisy was highlighted by the fact that, while the suspension was in effect, the United States continued to import recycled metals from Europe, where the decontamination standards aren't as strict as those the DOE was operating under before the energy secretary announced the ban.

Bush administration officials have no reason to continue this charade. The environmentalists who are most adamant in opposing the recycling do not wish the president well politically. Administration officials are never going to be able to appease these groups, no matter how many hearings they hold on the recycling issue.

So far, the hearings have featured predictable fearmongering about radioactivity invading "everyday items." These charges are made to inflame, not enlighten, the public.

It should be noted that as an added, although unnecessary precaution, officials plan to use recycled metal from the Paducah operation only in products that do not come into direct contact with consumers.

The recycling program is needed to help remove contaminated metals from the grounds of the Paducah plant and DOE sites in other parts of the country. As DOE officials noted in a 1998 newsletter, recycling certainly is safer than burying the radioactive materials.

Also, DOE owes it to the taxpayers to try to recover some of the costs of the massive nuclear cleanup program. Recycling is a safe, sensible way to get rid of this contaminated junk.