Cancer-causing countertops? Radioactive frying pans and braai tongs? This could become a reality soon: The United States Department of Energy (US DoE) wants to mix radioactive metal from nuclear weapons factories with clean scrap metal and let it enter into general commerce.
The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) followed suit: it went ahead with building and testing a radioactive metal smelter at Pelindaba, the birthplace of South Africa’s atomic bombs. The plan to melt radioactive scrap metal was resurrected along with the latest proposals by the US DoE, despite flawed environmental impact analysis (EIA) approval processes and a public outcry during the public hearings of the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR).
“Who and what will make sure that all the radioactive material is going to be contained?,” asks Judith Taylor, branch co-ordinator at Earthlife Africa Jhb. “Nobody, and no technical solution like air filters can ensure that. That’s why the so-called recycling of radioactive metals is unacceptable!”
Three proposed radioactive metal smelters are due to be licensed at the Pelindaba plant in early 2013. Public and political pressure is essential to stop the plans of intentionally dispersing radioactive material. South Africa initiated and ratified the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Pelindaba Treaty), and agreed ‘not to take any action to assist or encourage the dumping of radioactive wastes and other radioactive matter anywhere within the African nuclear-weapon-free zone’ (Art. 7). What is the difference between dumping and feeding radioactive metal into the recycling stream? Said Taylor: “If we follow the radioactive ‘recycling’ road, we are going to dump and disperse nuclear waste – we are going to deliberately contaminate and poison us and our environment.”
Increasing amounts of scrap originating from decommissioning of nuclear reactors, weapons and submarines are entering the public domain in an uncontrolled manner. Even “low-level” nuclear waste can contain lethally radioactive and long-lived elements, such as Plutonium-239, Strontium-90 and many others. As early as June 1997, a database maintained by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission showed over 2300 reports of radioactive materials found in recycled metal scrap – leading to halted operations and huge losses of earnings for affected businesses, radioactively contaminated areas and also deaths due to radioactive exposure.