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
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
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
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.