Thousands of tonnes of radioactive scrap metal from nuclear plants could be melted down and recycled into cutlery, saucepans and baby buggies under a scheme being promoted by the nuclear industry and its regulators.
A report compiled for the government’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and leaked to the Sunday Herald concludes that “metal melting” is a good way to deal with nuclear waste because it would save money and be environmentally friendly.
The aim is to reduce the levels of radioactivity in metal from decommissioned nuclear facilities by mixing it with less contaminated scrap. Some of the metal could then be sold on to the open market and used to make household items.
As the leaked report points out, there is only one snag – the public might not like it. “There are significant stakeholder issues that must be considered in order to implement an integrated metallic waste management strategy,” it says.
“These include public unease regarding the re-use of previously radioactive contaminated metals, and public concern over the transport of radioactive waste.”
The report was written by researchers from NNC, a company in Knutsford, Cheshire, that provides services to the nuclear industry. Commissioned by the nuclear inspectorate, it was presented at an invitation-only seminar in Warrington earlier this month.
It points out that there are 70,000 tonnes of medium-level and 383,000 tonnes of low-level radioactive scrap in the UK. In Scotland, this comes from nuclear plants that are being decommissioned at Dounreay in Caithness, at Hunterston in North Ayrshire and at Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway.
The establishment of melting plants for radioactive metal would be consistent with the government’s aim of minimising waste, maximising recycling and being environmentally sustainable, the report says. It would also “reduce disposal costs”.
“The idea is to prompt people to take a more wide-ranging approach to the issue,” said NNC’s Matt Buckley, the lead author of the report. “It is hoped that this can be considered as part of a strategy by the nuclear industry.”
He stressed that recycling contaminated metal into household goods was only one option. Metal melting could also help reduce the volume and radioactivity of waste, making it easier to handle and dispose of.
Glyn Davies, a principal inspector with the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, argued at the seminar that “potentially beneficial options for management of metallic wastes are not being given adequate consideration”.
“If our European friends see metal melting as a benefit and can make it work, then why not the UK?” he said. “Melting may contribute significantly to the management of metallic radioactive waste in the UK.”
However Jane Hunt, an independent expert on public attitudes to nuclear waste, warned that the plan would cause a scare. “This is likely to cause a lot of public concern because people are very sensitive about radioactive contamination,” she told the Sunday Herald.
“The idea that radioactivity could be in cooking imple-ments or children’s buggies will frighten people.”
Coincidentally, the nuclear-free group of local authorities also held a conference on the issue in Hull on Friday. The group’s chairman, Dundee councillor George Regan, pointed out that some scientists thought that even the tiniest amounts of radioactivity could increase the risk of cancer.
“Do you think an ordinary housewife would buy radioactive pans, even if they told her they were safe? I doubt it. I wouldn’t take the chance. The fact is that people do not want products recycled from radioactive material.”
The nuclear industry has launched a consultation on a code of practice for recycling waste that contains so little radioactivity it is “exempt” from regulation. It would expose people to only a tiny amount of radiation above background levels, the industry says. David Owen, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Clearance and Exemption Working Group, said that legislation would allow companies to recycle nuclear waste. “It is not my place to tell them what they can and cannot do. It is very important to do the right thing. We will take good ideas from anywhere .”
The government’s green watchdog, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), said the aim was to keep radiation doses to members of the public “as low as is reasonably achievable ”. Radioactivity should be disposed of by the “best practicable means”.
“As long as safety is assured there is a role for the re-use and recycling of radioactive contaminated wastes, and this supports sustainable development,” said a Sepa spokesman. But he accepted that there may be uses, like cooking utensils, drinks cans and children’s playgrounds, for which recycled radioactive materials could be inappropriate. “One argument might suggest that we should develop controls on products that permit some limited rather than general re-use.”
Environmental groups were less sanguine. “In a desperate attempt to cut costs, the nuclear industry has now devised one of the most potentially harmful examples of a ‘dilute and disperse’ policy”, said Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“The idea of contaminated materials entering people’s homes is alarming. The notion that the nuclear industry has suddenly caught on to the idea of waste reduction is a nonsense. If it had, then it would stop calling for the building of more nuclear power plants.”