Radioactive Nickel Blocked From Commercial Release

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 2000 (ENS) - Public fear that radioactive nickel from the U.S. nuclear weapons program could be turned into consumer items such as belt buckles and eating utensils has put a stop to a plan to release the metal.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson today blocked the release into the marketplace of 6,000 tons of the contaminated nickel from the Department of Energy's (DOE) nuclear facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.


Radioactive metal pallets at Oak Ridge DOE facility (Photo courtesy DOE)
Richardson's decision is a new department-wide policy that will also block the release of another 10,000 tons of the radioactive metal now held at other DOE sites.

There has been no national standard of safety for radioactivity in metals where the contamination permeates the entire mass of the metal instead of remaining on the surface. No law or regulation would have been violated by releasing the nickel into the commercial marketplace. But protests from environmental groups, Congressional representatives and metal traders caused Richardson to rethink DOE policy.

"The department will modify its contract with British Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (BNFL) to prohibit release of the Oak Ridge nickel into the marketplace, said Richardson today.


Radioactive scrap (Photo courtesy Environmental Assessment Division of Argonne National Laboratory)
"This will give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission time to develop national standards for volumetrically contaminated materials, and allow the public an opportunity to weigh in on the development of a national policy. It also will allow DOE to examine alternatives to free release," explained Richardson.

The rethinking was prompted by the idea of customers carrying their own geiger counters into stores to determine the radiation levels of metal products they are considering for purchase.

Concern over this reuse was expressed in a June 29, 1999 decision by Federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who found that, "The potential for environmental harm is great, given the unprecedented amount of hazardous materials which [DOE and BNFL] seek to recycle. The parties have not provided the court with any evidence of the safety of recycling in comparison with any other method of disposal."