Going shopping? Don’t forget your wallet and credit card. Or Geiger counter.
The discovery of radioactive tissue boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc. stores in January raised alarms among nuclear security officials and company executives over the growing global threat of contaminated scrap metal.
While the U.S. home-furnishing retailer recalled the boutique boxes from 200 stores nationwide without any reports of injury, the incident highlighted one of the topics drawing world leaders to a nuclear security meeting in Seoul on March 26-27. The bi-annual summit, convened by President Barack Obama for the first time in 2010, seeks to stem the flow of atomic material that has been lost, stolen or discarded as trash.
As U.S. and European leaders tackle the proliferation of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium in countries like Iran and North Korea, industries are confronting the impact of loose nuclear material in an international scrap-metal market worth at least $140 billion, according to the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling. Radioactive items used to power medical, military and industrial hardware are melted down and used in goods, driving up company costs as they withdraw tainted products and threatening the public’s health.
“The major risk we face in our industry is radiation,” said Paul de Bruin, radiation-safety chief for Jewometaal Stainless Processing BV, one of the world’s biggest stainless-steel scrap yards. “You can talk about security all you want, but I’ve found weapons-grade uranium in scrap. Where was the security?”
More than 120 shipments of contaminated goods including cutlery, buckles and work tools like hammers and screwdrivers were denied U.S. entry between 2003 and 2008 after customs and the Department of Homeland Security boosted radiation monitoring at borders. The department declined to provide updated figures or comment on how the metal tissue boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond, tainted with melted cobalt-60 used in medical instruments to diagnose and treat cancer, evaded detection.
Rachael Risinger, a spokeswoman for Union, New Jersey-based Bed, Bath & Beyond, said in an e-mail on Feb. 29 that “all possibilities to address this issue are being explored and implemented as appropriate.”
No Health Threat
The company said in a January press release it had been informed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a U.S. government agency that oversees radioactive material, that “there is no threat to anyone’s health from these tissue holders.” It said they had been withdrawn “out of an abundance of caution.”
Rotterdam-based Jewometaal, which found 145 nuclear items in scrap last year and 200 in 2010, reports incidents to Dutch authorities and the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. De Bruin keeps pictures of the nuclear-fission chamber containing bomb-grade uranium and other scrap with plutonium that he’s uncovered using radiation monitors at his shipping yard.
Cleaning a smelter of radioactive material erroneously melted inside can cost a company as much as 40 million euros ($53 million) and disrupt production for a week, he said.
More Stringent Rules
The Vienna-based IAEA is working with the scrap-metal industry to draft more stringent rules to increase radiation monitoring, bolster reporting requirements and improve disposal. Between 350 million tons and 550 million tons of iron scrap traded hands in 2010 for about $400 a ton, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of International Recycling, a global recycling industry association.
“The general public basically isn’t aware that they’re living in a radioactive world,” according to Ross Bartley, technical director for the recycling bureau, who said the contamination has led to lost sales. “Those tissue boxes are problematic because they’re radioactive and they had to be put in radioactive disposal.”
Abandoned medical scanners, food-processing devices and mining equipment containing radioactive metals such as cesium-137 and cobalt-60 are picked up by scrap collectors, sold to recyclers and melted down by foundries, the IAEA says. Dangerous scrap comes from derelict hospitals and military bases, as well as defunct government agencies that have lost tools with radioactive elements.
Chronic exposure to low doses of radiation can lead to cataracts, cancer and birth defects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A 2005 study of more than 6,000 Taiwanese who lived in apartments built with radioactive reinforcing steel from 1983 to 2005 showed a statistically significant increase in leukemia and breast cancer.
Industry and regulators are working to define an allowable limit for radiation in products that isn’t hazardous to customers’ health, according to the draft copy of the new IAEA rules for scrap handlers. This month’s Seoul nuclear-security summit will deal for the first time with the threats posed by uncontrolled radioactive sources, said Elena Sokova, executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
Forty-five heads of state including Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao will attend the nuclear summit, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website today.
An October 2008 delivery of radioactive elevator buttons assembled by Mafelec, a Chimilin, France-based company that makes control and signaling gear, contained radioactive metal shipped from India. Employees who handled the buttons were exposed to three times the safe dose of radiation for non-nuclear workers, according to regulators at the Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, France’s nuclear energy watchdog. Mafelec said at the time it had cut ties with the Indian supplier.
India and China were the top sources of radioactive goods shipped to the U.S. through 2008, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Bartley, a metallurgist who has tracked radioactive contamination since the early 1990s, said there’s no evidence the situation has improved.
“There are very few gate monitors in India,” he said. “The companies there are not up to speed in general.”
India’s radiation-detection system can’t cope with the amount of incoming scrap, said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research and lobbying group. Two years after an Indian scrap-metal worker died from radiation exposure, the world’s second-most populous country hasn’t installed alarms, the Ministry of Shipping said in December.
Rajendra Yadav, 35, who worked in one of the yards at the Mayapuri scrap metal site in New Delhi was breaking up an X-ray machine mistakenly thrown away by Delhi University when he fell ill, according to interviews this month with his co-workers, as they used hammers and chisels to dismantle telephones and car parts. After putting a shiny piece of the metal from the machine in his pocket he developed burn marks on his hips and thighs and died 20 days later, they said. Seven other workers were hospitalized.
The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the government body responsible for the safe use of radioactive material in India, said in an e-mail it has increased the number of on-site inspections and awareness programs to tighten controls in the wake of Yadav’s death.
“The same thing could easily happen again tomorrow,” said Deepak Jain, 65, who owns the yard where Yadav died. “We have no protection. The government promised a lot, but has delivered absolutely nothing.”