Recycling ban won't stand scrutiny
Bush administration officials are considering whether to lift the politically inspired suspension of a Department of Energy program that cleaned up scrap metal and sent it off for recycling.
The ban was imposed in the summer of 2000 by then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp called the ban "nonsense" and said it was designed to "pander ... to key constituencies." Those constituencies were organized labor, which wanted to protect the U.S. steel industry from competition, and environmentalists who fear and loathe any activity with the word "nuclear" connected to it.
Richardson pandered virtually nonstop during the 2000 presidential campaign, in an effort to boost the chances of his political ally, former Vice President Al Gore.
The recycling ban was an unusually cynical ploy. Richardson said it was necessary to protect consumers from exposure to contaminated materials. But DOE officials had previously described recycling as a safe and fiscally sound way to get rid of troublesome scrap made of materials such as nickel, stainless steel and copper.
The Paducah plant has about 60,000 tons of scrap metal, including 9,700 tons of contaminated nickel. If DOE proceeded with plans to recycle the nickel in Paducah, the project would create at least 40 jobs and generate $10 million in sales.
Nevertheless, Richardson preferred to play along with environmentalists who raised overwrought and scientifically unfounded concerns about contaminated metal ending up in children's braces.
In all likelihood, metal from the recycling program would never get close to children's teeth.
A group that is working to ease the impact of job losses at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has proposed limiting the sale of decontaminated nickel to manufacturers whose products do not come into direct contact with consumers. Under this plan, the nickel might end up in military aircraft landing gear or automobile parts, but definitely not in braces.
Regardless of how they're used, the decontaminated nickel and other recycled metals will pose no serious health threat.
The Wall Street Journal pointed out last year that, under DOE's old standards, radiation exposure levels from recycled metals were below the "average salt-substitute found in your local grocery store."
A company that is bidding to recycle the contaminated nickel reportedly has developed a process that reduces radiation below background levels. That would mean nickel mined from the ground would have a higher radiation level than the recycled DOE product.
If Richardson's standard of "no detectable contamination from departmental activities" remains in place, DOE may never remove and recycle nickel and other slightly contaminated metals from federal nuclear facilities.
A number of studies have found low-level radiation isn't harmful to humans. Richardson's standard for the DOE program isn't reasonable or scientifically sound.
It's difficult to see how burying this material or leaving it to rust on the grounds of the plants protects public safety or helps the environment.
The sensible and environmentally prudent course is to remove metals that are only slightly contaminated, subject them to high-tech decontamination and then reuse them.
This should become clear to Bush administration officials as they re-examine the purely political policies of the Richardson energy department.