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The Bush administration might revive the large-scale recycling of metal from defunct nuclear weapons plants. The controversial initiative, suspended under the Clinton administration, could allow massive amounts of recycled materials to be used in the manufacturing of car doors, building materials, even personal items such as wristwatches. The Department of Energy has long supported recycling, arguing that because almost all radiation can be cleaned off contaminated metals, they should be reused rather than go to waste. But opponents are skeptical of both the science of cleaning such metals and the agency’s ability to oversee the process. The department announced on July 12 that it is planning to prepare an environmental assessment on several options for dealing with tens of thousands of tons of metal from shut-down nuclear weapons plants. Among the options under consideration: allow the cleanup and recycling of only metal exposed to low levels of radiation under existing standards; develop more rigorous standards for measuring acceptable radiation levels in such material; or continue the existing ban on recycling any metal from such nuclear facilities. The resurrection of the recycling issue has triggered steep opposition from a coalition of environmentalists and the metal industry that was successful in killing the proposal under the previous administration. The metal industry — including scrap recyclers, steel mills, and other metal companies — is worried that if radioactive materials get into their plants, it could cost millions in shutdown and cleaning costs. And it doesn’t relish the idea of being associated with nuclear waste. “We are really opposed to it because of the perception of harm that it does to recycling,” says Thomas Danjczek, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association. “[Our industry is] the largest recycler. We recycle 50 million tons of scrap metal a year. Anything that hurts the perception of the product is going to hurt us.” Environmental groups are concerned that using materials from nuclear sites in consumer goods could be harmful. They also worry that the initiative may be implemented without the government fully exploring the hazards of such a practice. “The Department of Energy has a tremendous amount of waste [from weapons plants], and they want to get rid of it,” says Wenonah Hauter, head of the Critical Mass Energy and Environment project at Public Citizen, a consumer coalition that focuses on nuclear waste and recycling issues. “It’s a shame we never settled this issue. We just keep recycling it.” But recycling may make sense for the department. Burying metals or storing them in designated landfills is expensive. By recycling, the DOE saves on those costs. Sometimes the department or a contractor hired by the department can also make money off the sale of certain metals, most notably more valuable ones such as gold or nickel. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates commercial reactors, is also wrestling with the issue of recycling. The commission hired the National Academy of Sciences to report on setting radiation standards for releasing a whole host of products. “Part of the environmental impact statement is a public scoping process where we invite people in to comment, and we get their impressions and their opinions,” says Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis. “We are going to make sure we take all of that into account.” And some members of the nuclear business community say they hope to change the public’s perception of their industry. “I think a lot of it is that people are afraid of the word radioactivity,” says Jenny Freeman, executive director of the East Tennessee Environmental Business Association, which represents companies involved in nuclear cleanup. “They really haven’t looked at the health and safety standards that our companies use.” “It’s just a lot of fear mongering when they talk about radioactive zippers and braces, because there is no risk,” says Susan Gawarecki, executive director of the Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee, a nonprofit group of local officials near a uranium-enrichment weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “We have studied it in a lot of detail, and we are satisfied it is a well run program.” RADIATED NICKEL For many years, the Department of Energy has released small amounts of metal and other materials such as concrete and dirt from nuclear weapons plants for recycling and reuse. But along came decommissioning — the cleaning up and decontamination of now-closed weapons plants. And many of the groups opposed to recycling realized that what had been a small drip of materials would turn into a geyser of metal sheeting, ducts, steel rods, and nickel blocks flooding the U.S. metal supply. The Energy Department estimates that over the next 35 years, decommissioning nuclear weapons plants will produce more than a million tons of surplus metals. Of that, 30 percent to 50 percent may be recyclable. The opposition’s recent rallying point was the Oak Ridge cleanup. The Department of Energy hired the American arm of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) to clean up Tennessee site for $238 million. BNFL offered a substantial discount because the company was given permission to sell whatever metals and metal products it could get into recyclable condition. The Energy Department says most of the metal it has recycled in the past either did not register elevated levels of radioactivity or displayed levels of surface radioactivity that could be cleaned to meet a minimum safety standard. (The department’s current recommendation would allow the recycling of only surface-contaminated metals, the least contaminated. Volumetrically contaminated metals, which are infused with radiation, are not part of the current proposal.) BNFL was not only planning to recycle surface-contaminated steel, but it also wanted to sell 6,000 tons of highly valuable nickel that was volumetrically contaminated. The contaminated nickel proved a potent and powerful symbol. The nickel had more radiation and was more difficult to decontaminate than surface-contaminated products such as steel. Environmentalists, unions, the scrap recycling industry, and the metal industry all teamed up to fight the department’s plans to recycle over 100,000 tons of nickel, steel, and other materials from the plant. The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy International Union, fearing that radioactive metals could be used to manufacture consumer goods, filed suit, demanding that the department perform an environmental impact study. The union lost the case, but won the public relations battle. Environmentalists were quoted in newspaper articles about the metals ending up in braces or baby carriages. Members of Congress threatened to stop the process. With pressure from environmentalists and a host of industries mounting, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson first banned the nickel recycling in January 2000, then suspended all metal recycling six months later. This spring, BNFL shut down its Oak Ridge recycling operation. The Energy Department is buying the metal back from the company. “It’s probably cheaper to bury the metals than to clean them and recycle them,” says Colin Jones, a spokesman for the company. “We have no interest in restarting that business. Even if things do change, I don’t believe we would quickly be in that business again.” Not everyone cheered the moratorium. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who represents the Oak Ridge area, criticized the shutdown, as did some local Oak Ridge companies. But because Richardson made no final determination, he left the Bush administration and new Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to deal with the problem. “We are always concerned with it coming back up,” says Gary Visscher, vice president of the American Iron and Steel Institute. “But on the whole we are pleased they are moving ahead with the environmental impact statement. We will encourage them to look fairly broadly at the impact on our steel mills. We hope it won’t be a fig leaf.” But neither the environmentalists nor many in the metal industry have complete confidence in the DOE. Citing recent revelations of Energy Department subterfuge over radiation exposure and handling, many say they don’t want to rely on department guarantees that the metals they are sending out are problem-free. “Do you trust the Department of Energy, who promised there was no plutonium at the Paducah plant?” asks Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, referring to recent revelations of workers’ exposure to high levels of radiation at the Kentucky nuclear plant. “Why should we trust the same people who make the material to be the ones who release it?” Many recycling opponents say they are willing to look at certain options, such as restricted-use recycling, in which the metals would be tracked and used only for producing such things as containers for nuclear waste. But none of the opponents are open to unrestricted recycling. “Clearly, we were successful in getting Secretary Richardson to put a moratorium in place,” Danjczek says. “We are going to work every bit as diligently to get this administration to continue that.”

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