It's not through luck that a domestic steel mill hasn't
melted a radioactive source of scrap in more than two years.
Steelmakers and scrapyards have taken steps to make sure that
something "hot" doesn't become part of the hot metal.
And they continue to forge ahead with new monitoring and
training programs aimed at making sure that what the U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state regulators
euphemistically call "events" do not reoccur.
Virtually every steel mill in the United States has
installed what are called radiation detection portals at the
gates that each truck must pass through, or at the mills'
railroad siding where scrap is unloaded from gondola cars. Most
of the largest scrapyards also are equipped with similar
portals and other detection systems.
Brian Winters, OmniSource Corp.'s corporate environmental
manager, said the big Fort Wayne, Ind.-based scrap processor,
now part of Steel Dynamics Inc., employs the best radiation
detection technology that the company could find after an
exhaustive year-long search. The goal was to be sure that any
trucks coming into its yards or leaving them were clean, he
The Midwest scrap processor also has done a lot of upgrading
in recent years at numerous smaller scrap companies it acquired
that didn't use technology good enough for OmniSource, which
uses a radiation portal system similar to the equipment used at
many U.S. border crossings. All the portals are hooked into a
computer system so that when a truck crosses the scale the
operator gets a visual readout of any radioactivity. The system
scans the load on a foot-per-foot basis as a truck passes
through. If something is in there, Winters said, the system
will tell the scale operators where to start looking. "It helps
us figure out early on where to start looking for it. At that
point we use hand-held devices."
The recurring problem of orphan sources hasn't gone away,
but the steel and scrap industries have made strides in making
sure they are captured, according to Ray Turner, manager of
quality and radiation safety at David J. Joseph Co.'s River
Metals LLC unit in Louisville, Ky. Joseph is now a part of
Nucor Corp., Charlotte, N.C.
The two industries have learned how to deal with radioactive
material a lot better. Scrapyards are just as much a victim of
abandoned radioactive sources as steelmakers, he said. Like the
mills, they don't want these materials contaminating their
The technology of radiation detection systems has improved
over the years, according to Turner, an engineer regarded as
the scrap industry's guru of radiation monitoring. The
technology has improved, but the biggest strides have been the
redundancy that steel mills and scrap processors have added to
their facilities, he said. "People are putting them on shredder
conveyors and shear conveyors, as well as entrance and exits of
the plant sites. Some places are putting them inside the
grapple on the crane," he said.
Scrapyards and steel mills are taking existing technology
and adapting that to new applications. At steel mills, for
example, monitoring equipment has been installed on charging
buckets that convey scrap to the furnace.
These days, someone visiting a scrapyard or a mill will see
more than a single gauge hanging over the entrance gate. "It
used to be you would see a little PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe
that held the gauge and was about 15 feet above a scale. Now
you see large portal monitors and other detection equipment
throughout a facility," Turner said.
Still, every day a steel mill somewhere in the country is
finding a radioactive source in its melt material and many
scrapyards are finding not one, but several, sources each day.
"The problem has not gone away, (but) we have learned how to
deal with it a lot better," Turner said.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) said that
one of the largest steps is the new training manual the
Washington-based scrap industry organization is preparing. It
is shaping up to be a comprehensive document that not only
tells operators what to look for but also what to do if
radioactive material shows up in the scrap stream, said John
Gilstrap, ISRI's director of safety.
Awareness of the orphan source problem has increased among
scrap processors, especially after a Midwest steel mill melted
one in its furnace.
Shielded sources in the middle of a truckload of scrap might
not be easily detected, so the yard's operators want to make
certain the source isn't processed by their equipment to avoid
exposing workers to radioactivity as well as damaging
equipment. As a consequence, ISRI encourages scrapyards to
monitor both inbound and outbound scrap shipments.