The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, December 14, 2001

Recycling ban may be lifted for scrap metal
The Paducah plant has many tons of metal with low radioactive contamination. Critics fear it would be used for household goods.

By Bill Bartleman

The U.S. Department of Energy appears to be moving quickly to lift a Clinton administration ban on recycling some scrap metal from government nuclear facilities, including the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning supports the idea, saying it could generate millions of dollars for the federal government. "If recycling can be successful without causing contamination ... and harming the public, then I'm 100 percent for it," Bunning said. "We should try it on a trial basis and see how it works. There's a lot of money sitting in Paducah."

The Paducah plant has more than 60,000 tons of scrap metal, including iron, nickel, aluminum, copper and stainless steel. The scrap is the remains of an upgrading of the plant done in the 1970s. Much of it has radioactive contamination that officials say is below federal health standards.

Thousands of tons of additional scrap material are expected when obsolete buildings and equipment are decommissioned over the next 10 years.

DOE has been holding hearings around the country on the recycling ban. In October, officials said it would be a year or more before an environmental impact statement would be completed and a formal decision made.

However, the Associated Press obtained a copy of a recent DOE draft memo that outlines new procedures for recycling. The procedures involve testing the metals for contamination and documenting their release.

It was written for Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and prepared by James Decker, acting director of the Office of Science; Gen. Ronald Haeckel, acting deputy administrator for defense programs; and Jessie Roberson, assistant secretary for environmental management.

"The purpose of this action is to reduce site inventories in radiological areas of scrap metals that have not been radioactively contaminated by DOE activities or operations, the memo says.

Critics say it is a dangerous practice and fear that much of the recycled material will be used commercially in dental braces, jewelry, toys, kitchen utensils and other consumer products.

Supporters say recycling can be done safely with proper monitoring and documentation, and potentially represents millions of dollars for the government. They also say that much of the material would be used in construction and not for household items.

DOE officials in Washington did not return telephone messages for a comment.

Prior to 1999 DOE was pursuing plans to recycle the nickel, copper and other metals at the Paducah plant. The idea was put on hold when the Clinton administration banned the practice after heavy lobbying from environmentalists and others who worried it would be used in commercial products.

In July, the Bush administration began its environmental assessment of the ban with a series of hearings. In October, a hearing was held in Paducah using a video link to officials in Washington and Oak Ridge, Tenn. A live hearing has been promised in Paducah early next year.

The potential lifting of the ban won't affect a plan to send contaminated aluminum from Paducah to a hazardous waste landfill in Nevada, according to Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs. He said contamination levels are too high for it to be recycled. Other aluminum with low levels of contamination could be recycled, he said.

The earlier plan was to recycle about 9,700 tons of nickel, 28 tons of copper, 2,000 tons of iron and 25 tons of stainless steel.

Some watchdog groups are concerned that the ban could be lifted before the Bush administration completes a new study on what material is safe for recycling and before the National Academy of Sciences completes a study for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the Paducah plant.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)