Groups seek to stop release of contaminated material

No uniform standard for radioactive scrap

June 13, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

It is the nuclear age equivalent of beating swords into plowshares: the conversion of mildly radioactive scrap metal from the United States' obsolete defense arsenal into a vast array of consumer products.

The Cold War rubble has become raw material for I-beams and automobiles, jewelry and silverware, leg braces and hip replacements.

However, as the volume of radioactive recyclables mushrooms, the federal government still lacks uniform health standards for safely disposing of the material.

Now, environmental groups, labor unions, the metal industry and scientists are demanding that the so-called free release of lightly contaminated materials be stopped. Critics say the rules for screening out hazardous contaminants are obsolete and current policy - requiring no labeling, tracking or recall procedures for material deemed eligible for release - is a recipe for calamity.

The federal government has been releasing such material quietly for years, trucking if off to municipal landfills and selling it to demolition contractors, scrap dealers and recyclers. Items include furniture, concrete blocks, structural remains of demolished buildings, even soil from a variety of government installations.

One of those is within the Santa Susana Field Laboratory above Simi Valley, Calif., operated by Boeing's Rocketdyne Division. There, government scientists tested several nuclear reactors, manufactured nuclear fuel and made rocket and missile engines.

Officials insist the radioactive matter at Santa Susana and other nuclear research stations is being released in such small, diluted quantities that it is safe.

They point out, for example, that the dose of radioactivity contained in a piece of recycled scrap metal is often less than in a chest X-ray or in the potassium content of a shaker of table salt substitute.

Environmental groups counter that the harm from radioactivity, which can cause cancer and birth defects, tends to come from repeated exposure to small doses over many years. Any increase in the amounts of radioactivity that people are exposed to during the course of everyday life is a potential hazard, said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an organization of nuclear critics that has long monitored events at Santa Susana.

"The sea of natural radioactivity in which we all live and from which we cannot escape is estimated to cause 5 percent to 50 percent of all cancers and a large fraction of birth defects," he said. "There is nothing we can do about that except not add to it."

Hirsch noted that the amount of radioactivity that individuals encounter in their daily lives, from such sources as cosmic rays or household radon, can produce one cancer case in every 40 people.

But with the volume of recyclable objects from defense facilities alone expected to grow to well over 1 million tons, officials say there are huge savings to be made by exempting slightly contaminated material from requirements that it be stored in dumps designed specifically for radioactive items.

At Santa Susana recently, objections by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and state Democratic Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl held up a shipment of 100,000 cubic feet of dirt laced with strontium-90, cesium-137 and other long-lived radioactive particles. Bound for a landfill north of Bakersfield, Calif., that is not licensed to handle radioactive debris, the soil had been excavated from a pit at Santa Susana where chemical residue was burned for at least a decade.

Boxer and Kuehl have cited government prohibitions against sending the soil to the landfill if the radioactivity is higher than "background" - the levels commonly found in nature. They contend that, before it approved the soil shipment, the government's analysis showed the soil's radioactivity is higher than background levels. Officials in charge of the cleanup say they have no idea how radioactive material got into the pit.

"Somehow the normal process failed and we ended up with other contaminants, some of them radioactive," said Steve Laflamme, director of safety, health and environmental affairs for Rocketdyne.

However, Rocketdyne officials insist the overall amount of radioactivity in the soil is too minute to pose a health hazard, and they plan to send it to the landfill.

Such disputes are common at Santa Susana and elsewhere. Critics say that poor screening is letting out material contaminated in excess of prescribed levels, that those thresholds themselves are not low enough and that economics is shaping policies that ought to be based on health considerations.

Scientific disagreements over just how much radioactivity is acceptable have frustrated efforts to establish a single health-based national standard designed to shield people from hazardous exposure..

The Steel Manufacturers Association reports 50 incidents in which materials released for recycling were contaminated at levels higher than the government considers safe.

No one was injured handling the metal, the association says. But at least two companies spent millions of dollars cleaning up contaminated mills. Those costs and the fear of a public backlash against radioactive metal have prompted the association and other metal industry trade groups to issue their call for halting the release of any radioactive materials by government facilities.

The regulatory guidance used by the Energy Department tolerates a broad spectrum of risk, depending on the radioactive element involved. For some elements, the guidance would permit a risk of up to one cancer case per 300 people exposed. For others, the risk level is beyond one per 1 million exposed. On the other hand, the Environmental Protection Agency requires a fixed risk standard of one cancer case per 1 million people. But the EPA can grant exemptions to that standard.

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