YOUR VERY OWN COLD WAR SOUVENIR
What to do with the country's radioactive legacy
Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute
for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma
It's no secret that the United States Department of Energy has a big problem on its hands. It has to figure out what to do with the country's obsolete and dangerous nuclear weapons complex: a vast collection of contaminated buildings, equipment and materials. Now, the Department wants to share with every American a little piece of that Cold War legacy.
During the 1990s, it became clear that dealing with the Cold War mess will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, and pressure has grown to find an easy way out. One novel approach (this is no joke) was to recycle contaminated materials into the general stream of commercial products. After all, if we could make pots and pans out of the stuff we wouldn't have to bother with radioactive landfills or storage sites.
A few years ago, the government contracted the U.S. subsidiary of BNFL, a British government-owned firm, to decontaminate thousands of tons of radioactive nickel from an Oak Ridge, Tennessee, plant and sell it to the public, without so much as studying the environmental impact (see related story). Not surprisingly, this caused a scandal. Environmentalists and a union filed a lawsuit. Finally on July 13, 2000, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson promised that contaminated metals would not be sold for "unrestricted" uses (there was some talk of using it to make containers for radioactive waste).
But in October 2000 DOE proposed a new rule that, deep in the fine print, would allow the release of large amounts of contaminated materials, buildings, and equipment, including equipment with contaminated metal in it. In other words, the rule has a loophole that you could drive a Ford Expedition through. It restricts scrap metal recycling, but allows the release of equipment, such as pipes or pumps, that contain contaminated metal.
In other words, as long as the contaminated metal is part of a piece of equipment, there is nothing preventing the metal in it from entering the consumer product stream if the equipment is scrapped after DOE sells it.
Even scrap metal in DOE's control may eventually pass through a measurements loophole. For people who may not have been reading fine print in the proposed DOE order, here's what it says:
No scrap metal that contains or is suspected of containing residual radioactive material may be released for recycling into general use ... unless (1) such material has been surveyed, and (2) there is reasonable assurance that residual radioactive material is not detectable on the metal.
Sounds fine, doesn't it?
Well, no. To start with, this rule only requires that the surface of the scrap metal be surveyed; it is silent about radioactivity buried deep inside its mass. While Secretary Richardson has banned the release of such volumetrically contaminated material, the proposed rule would pave the way for the incoming Secretary of Energy to overturn this ban.
A central problem with the rule is that the agency has a dismal record on keeping track of amounts of radioactive materials in waste, both large and small. One example: for the past four years the Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., has had an unresolved difference of opinion with its premier nuclear weapons laboratory, at Los Alamos, over how much plutonium there is in the radioactive waste at the laboratory. The lab's estimate outstrips headquarters' by a quantity of plutonium big enough to make about 150 nuclear bombs. That's enough bombs to vaporize the heart of just about every large city in North America, South America, and Europe.
Another problem with the rule is how the Department defines allowable contamination for buildings, materials, and equipment. DOE's fine print authorizes (without explicitly saying so) the use of a lax 1974 standard for deciding the limit of allowable contamination.
But it's not just DOE that we need to worry about. Since the Manhattan Project, the Department's work has been done by contractors, a select group. BNFL, for one, has been the contractor of choice for many recent projects, including the recycling project in Tennessee. BNFL's British parent company has famously polluted the shoreline around its Sellafield plant in the UK with radioactive plutonium and americium. Last year, BNFL was forced to admit that it sent plutonium fuel with falsified quality control data to Japan. The company lost $500 million in fiscal year 1999-2000, mostly as a result of the ensuing scandal.
In fact, most of the major contractors that would be entrusted with measuring the radiation have had major problems fulfilling their clean-up commitments under DOE contracts. Another example is Lockheed Martin. The DOE has been involved in a lawsuit with a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin over plutonium waste clean-up at its Idaho plant. The DOE is currently spending more money on the lawsuit than on the clean-up.
The problems extend beyond the contractors to the DOE itself, which has conceived many projects poorly and has been lax in its oversight responsibilities. And then we have to consider the conflicts created by revolving doors at the agency that sometimes go so fast they would be better described as whirling doors.
This latest move is only one part of a DOE policy that is bringing the legacy of the Cold War into more intimate contact with the public. The DOE has also been leasing contaminated buildings for civilian work. For instance, at its Hanford, Washington site, arguably the most polluted place in the country, the DOE has leased a contaminated building for the manufacture of baseball bats.
Even if the agency and its contractors had impeccable track records, a policy that could result in the release of contaminated materials to the general public would be unconscionable. The only policy that would acceptably protect the public is a definitive and unequivocal ban on releasing contaminated materials for general use. Suspect materials should be confined to nuclear weapons sites. Some of them could be used for applications such as radioactive waste containers (as the rule suggests), though the safety of such applications for workers should be carefully and independently evaluated before embarking on such a course.
The radioactive and toxic legacy of the Cold War will be with us for a very long time and a comprehensive policy that would protect the public, workers, and future generations, as well as natural resources, is long overdue.
Published: Dec 21 2000