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DOE Submits Plan to Recycle Radioactive Waste into Consumer Goods

Radioactive Waste

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Department of Energy (DOE) has released a proposal that would allow nearly 14,000 tons of radioactive metals to be recycled for use in consumer goods
  • The proposal would modify an existing suspension to allow scrap metals from radiological areas to be released to private industry to be used for any purpose, including recycling
  • The DOE’s proposal would only add to the growing amount of radioactive scrap metal already circulating globally, contributing to increasing “background” levels of radiation exposure that have been linked to cancer, cataracts, birth defects and more

By Dr. Mercola

If you had a choice to purchase eyeglasses or a stainless steel water bottle that was either radioactive, albeit only slightly, or not, which would you choose? You would almost certainly choose the non-radioactive product, as it is well- known that no amount of radiation exposure is "safe."

Yet the U.S. government – specifically the Department of Energy (DOE) – has released a proposal1 that would allow nearly 14,000 tons of radioactive metals to be recycled for use in consumer goods…

Department of Energy Wants to Recycle Their Radioactive Waste Metal Into Common Products

There is currently a suspension in place that restricts the release of scrap metal originating from radiological areas at U.S. DOE facilities (such as research laboratories or nuclear weapons facilities) for the purpose of recycling.

This suspension, which has been in place since 2000, is there for obvious reasons – it was imposed because of public concerns about the potential health and environmental effects of radioactive metals coming from these sites.

Now the DOE has issued a proposal to modify the suspension to allow scrap metals to be released to private industry to be used for any purpose, including recycling.

The draft proposal notes that only metal with the potential for surface, not volume, radioactivity, would be included in this plan, and they are touting it as benefit to the environment "from a decrease in the need for the mining and refining of metals due to the recycling of these materials." The draft noted:

"Mining and smelting activities are large users of water and power, both of which would be reduced by the recycling of these materials.

In addition, there would be benefits to the environment resulting from reduced land use, reduced disturbance of geology and soils, reduced GHG [greenhouse gas] and other emissions, and reduced occupational injuries associated with the reduced need for mining and refining of metal ores attributable to the recycling of these materials."

It is unclear just how significant these purported environmental "benefits" could truly be, considering the draft also notes that the radioactive metal in question represents only an "extremely small fraction (of the order of 0.004 percent) of the total metal recycled" in the United States. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that sales of the metals could bring in up to $40 million a year for the DOE …2

Radioactive Metals Could Increase Cancer Risks and be Used by Pregnant Women and Children

According to the DOE, only a "negligible individual dose" of radiation would be gleaned from exposure to their contaminated metals. They likened the annual exposure amount to half the amount of radiation you'd get from flying across country.

This is an inappropriate comparison, as the internalization of low-dose radioisotopes can have decades-long, severe toxicological consequences due to their bioaccumulation and persistence within the body, whereas external natural radiation exposure only lasts as long as the body is exposed, e.g. the several hour duration of a flight.

Also, the DOE's minimization of the risks involved do not take into account mistakes that have already happened in the past when the government recycled metal from nuclear sites in the 1990s to 2000s. During that time inadequate testing of the materials was noted, and one test in particular showed metals with radioactivity levels several times higher than were supposed to be allowed.3

Other unanswered questions include the risks that could be posed to workers who must handle the radioactive metals on a daily basis, or to those who end up with a "slightly" radioactive surgical implant or set of braces. The Wall Street Journal reported on just a peppering of the backlash that has already surfaced:4

"Some critics argue the DOE's proposed exposure standards are too high and that information provided in its 50-page document explaining the proposal is even more worrisome.

Higher exposures could occur if contaminated metal is made into items such as belt buckles or hip-replacement joints, said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and critic of the government's proposal. Such exposures would further increase a person's cancer risk, he said.

…Rep. Ed Markey wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, calling the recycling proposal 'unwise' and stating the proposal 'should be immediately abandoned.' The Massachusetts Democrat added that contaminated products could 'ultimately be utilized by pregnant women, children and other vulnerable populations.'"

Radioactive Scrap Metal is Already a Problem

The DOE's proposal would only add to the growing amount of radioactive scrap metal circulating globally. You may remember headlines from last year when radioactive metal tissue boxes were found at Bed, Bath and Beyond stores in the United States. In this case the products were tainted with cobalt-60, a radioactive compound used in the medical industry to diagnose and treat cancer.5 The radiation-safety chief for one of the world's biggest stainless-steel scrap yards actually told the Seattle Times last year that:6

"The major risk we face in our industry is radiation… You can talk about security all you want, but I've found weapons-grade uranium in scrap. Where was the security?"

That company alone found 145 nuclear items in their scrap metal in 2011 and another 200 in 2010. It's unclear how much of this radioactive metal slips through the cracks and ends up getting processed into metal goods that are then sold to unassuming consumers…

And this isn't only a matter of cancer. Radiation exposure of the developing embryo or fetus during pregnancy can also contribute to the development of diseases other than cancer in children. There is evidence of radiation exposure leading to increased incidence of cataracts, and there is also a phenomenon known as the "bystander effect," which multiplies the dose and harm from radiation exposures. According to Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, cells that have not been exposed to radiation can be harmed by nearby cells that have. Writing for ISIS, Dr. Ho explains:7

"…low dose radiation is all the more dangerous because it does not kill the targeted cell, but allows its influence to spread widely to adjacent cells, thus multiplying the radiation effect (about 100 fold) …a wide range of bystander effects in cells not directly exposed to ionizing radiation have been found, which are the same as or similar to those in the cells that were exposed, including cell death and chromosomal instability."

Share Your Concerns About the Release of Radioactive Scrap Metal

Although the 30-day comment period for the DOE draft proposal to release radioactive scrap metal for recycling has ended, late comments may still be considered. You can share your comments with the Department of Energy by emailing:

[email protected]

Written comments can be mailed to:

Dr. Jane Summerson, DOE NNSA
P.O. Box 5400
Bldg 401
Albuquerque, NM 87185

Protecting Yourself in Our "Radioactive World"

"The general public basically isn't aware that they're living in a radioactive world," said Ross Bartley, technical director for the Bureau of International Recycling.8 Indeed, today's "background" levels of radiation have been greatly increased by discharges from nuclear activities including tests of nuclear weapons, use of depleted uranium, and uranium mining, not to mention environmental catastrophes like the Fukushima nuclear plant. If you're looking for strategies to help prevent damage caused by radiation exposure, there are several I recommend, including:

  • Vitamin D3 (also known as calcitriol) may offer protection against a variety of radiation-induced damages, including even those caused by background radiation or a low-level nuclear incident.
  • Spirulina – a blue-green algae – might be another useful alternative to protect against the effects of radiation. Spirulina was actually used to treat children exposed to chronic low levels of radiation after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
  • Turmeric contains a broad spectrum of water, fat and alcohol-soluble components, all of which may contribute to reducing damage associated with both external radiation and internalized radioisotope exposures.
  • Whey: the use of a high-quality whey protein concentrate may help protect against absorbing radioactive minerals.

The following foods, herbs and supplements may also help support your overall health in the event of radiation exposure:

Ginseng Kelp and other seaweeds (high in natural iodine) Zeolites (to neutralize radiation) or bentonite clays
Ashwaganda (an adaptogenic herb) Fulvic Acid Reishi mushrooms (strong immune support)
High-dose vitamin C Magnesium Selenium
Coconut oil, which supports optimal thyroid health Astaxanthin (has some protective function against ionizing radiation) Chlorella (contains chlorophyll, which will increase your resistance to radiation)