As history has shown, abandoned radioactive scrap can wreak havoc on operations if it makes its way into the mainstream. And while proper disposal of contaminated sources still occurs, various programs have been established to make the problem a little easier to deal with.
Some 105 orphan radioactive sources—defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as "a sealed source of radioactive material contained in a small volume, but not radioactively contaminated soils and bulk metals"—have been melted in steel or ironmaking furnaces since the metals industry and government regulators began tracking such incidents two decades ago.
One instance where such devices become a problem is when they are improperly disposed of as scrap metal and taken to metal recyclers, according to the NRC. Other problem sources include radioactive materials used in gauges that are discarded along highways or waterways, and the sealed sources used in oil and gas exploration. Oilfield gauges can contain radioactive materials that exceed the limits for disposal at commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities, the NRC said.
To handle the orphan source problem, the agency has established a reimbursement agreement with several states through an organization called the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors aimed at providing funds for the disposal of such radioactive sources.
Through the cooperation of state radiation control programs, those that don't have the funds can receive financial help from the government, and those not likely to be held responsible for the safe disposition of orphan radioactive material will be reimbursed for their expense to properly dispose of the material. This can include scrapyards and steel mills that receive scrap metals containing an unwanted surprise—a radioactive device.
Orphan radioactive material poses a potential public health threat, the NRC said. Individuals who are close to the material risk radiation exposure, and radioactive contamination can spread to the environment.
The 105 "events," as NRC officials call them, include 39 incidents in the 1990s of radioactive sources being melted. In recent years, though, most of these incidents have occurred overseas—not in the United States or Europe.
Unfortunately, many discoveries have come after the fact, so to speak, in irradiated steel products. In October, for example, a French elevator manufacturer learned that it was making "hot" elevator buttons from contaminated steel produced in India.
But Ray Turner, manager of quality and radiation safety at David J. Joseph Co.'s River Metals LLC unit in Louisville, Ky., disagrees with some industry members who have been critical of foreign companies and governments for failing to act responsibly. He has worked with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which in 2004 polled nations throughout the world about policies for orphan source radiation monitoring. It received responses from 54 nations.
Since then, "there has been a tremendous improvement not only in Europe but also in Asia. National governments are spelling out what their regulatory requirements are, what they require scrapyards and steel mills to do, what they require the ports to do," he said.
Turner praised the NRC reimbursement program, but added that more needs to be done. Steel and scrap industries both here and abroad need help from state and national regulators in the disposal of abandoned sources, he said. When scrapyards and steel mills capture one or more orphan sources, federal and state governments should step in to help get rid of them.
One such program has been set up for military sources by state regulators in North Carolina. Scrap dealers who find any radioactive gauges that were used by the military can call nearby U.S. Army bases to take the devices and dispose of them free of charge.
Turner also argues that more help is needed to track down the origins of orphan devices to help prevent such devices entering the scrap stream in the future.