While redundancy might seem like a bad idea in today's
economic environment, duplicate systems in the scrap supply
stream make a world of difference when it comes to monitoring
And the United States and Europe are at the top of their
game in developing more-sophisticated monitoring systems that
help steel mills avoid melting radioactive materials like
cesium or cobalt 60.
No American steelmaker has melted a radioactive source in
the past few years, in large part because of the redundancy
being built into the scrap supply lines at mills and at
scrapyards. The last meltdown at a domestic steel mill occurred
about five years ago. This is contrast to the way things were a
decade ago, when such "events"-as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission and state regulators call such incidents-happened
every couple of years.
Through past experiences, mills have learned how damaging it
can be to melt even a radioactive device smaller than a human
hand. Cleanup and disposal cost millions of dollars on top of
losing production from furnaces and other irradiated
"We attribute that reduction in incidents or events to more
companies putting in more sophisticated systems," Steve
Steranka, president of Rad/Comm Systems Corp., said. The
Mississauga, Ontario-based equipment maker provides portal
systems to monitor truck and rail deliveries, as well as charge
bucket loading systems and off-gas systems that monitor the
dust at baghouses.
Many of the steel and scrap industry problems with discarded
radioactive sources cropped up in the 1990s. These had their
genesis in the 1960s and 1970s, when radioactive devices were
adapted for various uses-measuring the density of materials,
for example, or the dampness in new concrete roadbeds.
The problem with radioactivity is that it has "half lives"
and starts to decline after a while, Steranka said, and the
original container or shield will act as a shield, thus making
radiation even more difficult to detect.
Most major scrapyards, along with steel mills, have
installed portal monitoring equipment at their gates, according
to D.J. Schooneveld, Science Applications International Corp.'s
global account manager of Exploranium radiation detection
systems for the steel and scrap industries.
"Almost all of them have radiation detection systems at
their gates and it is kicking down to the small yards, which
are now installing detection equipment. It may not be as
expensive as (the equipment used) by larger scrapyards and the
steel mills, but we do see an increase in that area," he
Both Schooneveld and Steranka said they are urging mills and
scrapyards to have multiple layers of radiation detection
equipment in their facilities.
"We encourage them to put radiation equipment in the area
where they do charge bucket monitoring and where they monitor
the dust and the slag," Schooneveld said.
Some scrap companies have more yards and they are much
further apart, Steranka said. In the past they didn't worry
about those secondary, or feeder, yards because all the scrap
would be shipped to the main yards, which had a portal
monitoring system. But now they're putting monitoring equipment
on shredder conveyor belts, and some are equipping hydraulic
cranes and grapples as well. "The whole scrap industry is going
through a remodeling phase, and they are adopting new policies
and enforcing them at all of their facilities," he said.
Mills and scrapyards are demanding more-sophisticated
systems these days. One reason is the need to minimize false
alarms. A truck driver or peddler that has undergone a recent
medical procedure might be the source of the radiation that
sets off the alarm, not the scrap.
Also, with the consolidation in the steel and scrap
industries, some companies now have multiple work sites to
monitor, Steranka said. They want a networking capability so
the corporate environmental manager or others charged with
monitoring scrap supplies can react if a source passes through
the front gates.
The technology is improving, Schooneveld said. "We are
working on a new generation of radiation portals, which are
providing more sensitivity and lower false alarm rates. We want
to provide a greater sensitivity and provide a greater
protection and lower the false alarms."
More systems are now designed for different-sized investment
in the yards, Steranka said, and networking capability has
grown as well.
What's lagging is wider usage of radiation monitoring
equipment outside the United States and Europe, according to
equipment makers. In one recent incident, an Indian company
produced contaminated steel that was later used for elevator
buttons. The irradiated metal wasn't discovered until the
buttons were installed in elevators in France. Similarly,
stainless steel coils made in a Chinese mill were found to be
irradiated, but that discovery wasn't made until the coils
arrived at an Italian port.
The United States and Europe are well on their way to having
steel mills and most scrapyards equipped with monitoring
systems, according to Steranka. Steel mills in Mexico have
installed monitoring equipment, but scrapyards there are about
40 to 60 percent behind U.S. yards.
"Some steel companies and most scrapyards in other regions
of the world have nothing because they think they don't have
any problems," he said.