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Contaminated Scrap Metal

Radiation Source Reduction & Management
 Source Reduction  Source Tracking   Orphan Source Detection
  and Response
 Orphan Source Recovery

Recycling of iron and steel scrap conserves raw materials, energy, and landfill space. Million of metric tons from both domestic and international sources are recycled each year in the United States:

Steel making and foundry industries rely on radiation-free scrap from manufacturing operations and recycled used products. Radioactively contaminated scrap threatens both human health and the environment, as well as economics of the steel industry. If radioactive scrap contaminated the metal supply, it could expose steel workers and potentially be incorporated into consumer products.

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How does scrap metal become contaminated?

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) describes the three ways radioactively contaminated scrap is produced:

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Where does contaminated scrap metal come from?

Scrap Metal from Demolition Sites

Demolition of Commercial Facilities

Thickness gauge.

Demolition sites are a major supplier of the world’s scrap metal supply. When a demolition contractor is scheduled to take down a building, they may not be notified about the presence of radioactive materials at the site. A gauge or device that contains a radioactive source (e.g., a thickness gauge) may be put inadvertently into the outgoing scrap metal shipments. If demolition contractors can identify these devices on-site, they will be able to secure and handle them safely, reducing the number that show up at scrap yards and metal melting facilities.

Who is Protecting You

EPA's Demolition CD

EPA has developed a training CD for demolition contractors on identifying and properly handling radiation sources at demolition sites. The National Demolition Association, which has over 800 members, was a partner in developing this training. They participated in developing, reviewing, and testing the CD and were heavily involved in its distribution to demolition contractors and safety officers. Visit EPA's Radiation homepage.

Demolition of Nuclear Facilities

The nuclear facilities managed by the DOE and commercial nuclear power plants licensed by NRC are the largest potential sources of scrap metal from nuclear facilities in the United States. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), NRC, the Department of Defense (DoD), and state or Superfund authorities are primarily responsible for management of scrap metal from these facilities. Contaminated metals from these sources are disposed of and are not recycled.

Who is Protecting You

In the United States, the release of materials (including scrap metal) with radioactive surface contamination from commercial facilities, such as power plants, is controlled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Regulatory Guide 1.86: Termination of Operating Licenses for Nuclear Reactors (PDF)(9 pp, 29K About PDF). The Department of Energy has incorporated most of the NRC guidance for use by DOE facilities in DOE Order 5400.5: Radiation Protection of the Public and the Environment (PDF) (87pp, 1.58MB About PDF)

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Imported Scrap Metal

Scrap metal recycling is an increasingly international industry. Since the United States imports millions of tons of scrap metal, semi finished metal, and metal products each year, it is important to ensure that this metal is not contaminated with radioactivity.

Fortunately, incidents are isolated and the radiation that has been detected in imported metals to date has not been at levels that are considered dangerous (that is, levels below the threshold requiring Superfund action). However, there is always the possibility that more highly contaminated materials could be exported to the United States; EPA is working with other federal agencies to develop strategies to prevent entry of this metal.

Scrap metal being unloaded by grapple which is fitted with a radiation sensor.

Grapple with radiation sensor fitted at the inside top.

Who is Protecting You

EPA worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate the issue of contaminated scrap metal worldwide. We then worked with other federal agencies to ensure that a consistent standard is applied for all materials released internationally. This standard will help protect the U.S. public against radioactive contaminated material from foreign countries.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe circulated a questionnaire to learn the current state of scrap metal radiation monitoring protocols. Below are the six specific areas that were investigated and the issues identified:

Next Steps

Monitoring for Contaminated Shipments at Scrap Yards and Metal Processing Facilities

Portal Monitor at Scrap Metal Facility

Portal Monitor at a Scrap Metal Yard

Many scrap metal yards and metal processing facilities monitor scrap shipments for radioactive contamination. However, monitoring does not guarantee detection of sources. They may be shielded by the scrap metal or by their own casings.

Radioactive sources or contaminated scrap can cause severe illness or death to workers at metal processing facilities. Cleanup of sites where melting have occurred cost multiple millions of dollars.

A cesium source was melted at steel mill in Florida. The source was vaporized and drawn into the mill’s emission control system where it contaminated the bag house dust. Radiation alarms in the primary emission control system bag house sounded, leading plant personnel to shut down the emission system. This caused contaminated flue dust to back up into the secondary bag house. To remove the resulting contamination and return the plant to production, decontamination workers and health physics technicians worked around the clock for more than three weeks in extreme heat. The estimated total cleanup cost for the melted source is $25 million.

EPA worked with state, federal, and industry organizations to develop a training program that helps workers at scrap metal yards identify and properly handle radioactive materials found in scrap shipments. "Response to Radiation Alarms at Metal Processing Facilities" is available for download. A poster (PDF) (1 pg, 433K About PDF) which provides an overview of the program is also available.

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