Contaminated Scrap Metal
Radiation Source Reduction & Management
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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 cans
- construction materials
- other steel products
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.
On this page:
- How does scrap metal become contaminated?
- Where does contaminated scrap metal come from?
- Monitoring for Contaminated Shipments at Scrap Yards and Metal Processing Facilities
How does scrap metal become contaminated?
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) describes the three ways radioactively contaminated scrap is produced:
Discrete radioactive sources may be mixed with scrap when they escape from regulatory control by being abandoned, lost, or stolen.
- Uncontrolled material contaminated with natural or man-made radionuclides from industrial processes may enter the scrap stream.
Example 1:. Pipe scale from oil and gas drilling that contains naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). As the oil or gas is pumped from the ground, radionuclides and other minerals from the surrounding soil and water are deposited in pipes or equipment. This material may not be under regulatory control in the first place.
Example 2: Material improperly released from the nuclear industry that was contaminated with man-made radionuclides above regulated limits.
- Material with a very low levels of radioactivity that are below regulatory limits
Where does contaminated scrap metal come from?
Scrap Metal from Demolition Sites
Demolition of Commercial Facilities
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 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.
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)
- Technical Support Document Potential Recycling of Scrap Metal from Nuclear Facilities09/01; file sizes range from 97-872K
Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.
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.
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:
- Regulatory infrastructure
- Application of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Code of Conduct for the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.
- Monitoring of imported and exported scrap metal
- Location, scope and magnitude of monitoring requirements and procedures
- Standardization of monitoring of scrap metal and response to alarms
- Arrangement for disposal facility or return to manufacturer program
- Application of existing regulations for the shipment of detected radioactive material
- Mechanisms for effectively dealing with contaminated scrap metal
- Strengthening of contractual requirements on the acquisition of scrap metal to require radiation monitoring prior to sale
- Standardizing and strengthening reporting and investigating procedures
- Establishing a mechanism for the exchange of information on practices and lessons learned in monitoring radioactively contaminated scrap metal
Protocol: An internationally acceptable monitoring and response protocol will be developed. The Spanish Protocol, which provides for collaboration between various government agencies and industry to monitor for and dispose of unwanted radioactive materials in scrap metal, will be used as a framework.
Information Exchange: A Web portal will allow the international exchange of scrap industry data. A database where countries can report scrap radiation incidents may be developed as well.
Training: International training programs will be developed to address major topics:
- protocol implementation
- optimum location of radiation monitors
- detector sensitivities
- calibration and maintenance needs
- incident reporting formats
- process for handling materials after detection
- transportation considerations
- United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) publications
This site provides access to reports from this project in PDF format.
- Poster: An International Approach to Monitoring, Interception, and Managing Radioactively Contaminated Scrap Metal (PDF) (1 pg, 1.13MB About PDF)
This poster provides an overview of the UNECE project.
Monitoring for Contaminated Shipments at Scrap Yards and Metal Processing Facilities
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.
- Poster: Radioactive Scrap - Be Aware! (NUREG/BR-0108, Revision 1)
This NRC poster contains pictures of items that may contain radioactive materials, guidance on what to do, and information on whom to contact.