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“Orphan” Radioactive Sources in Scrap Metal

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This page provides an overview of how radioactive sources end up lost or abandoned and the technology we are using to locate these sources.

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Sometimes radiation sources are disposed of improperly and end up in scrap metal yards. With the help of advanced technology, we are finding ways to locate misplaced radiation sources before they get into scrap metal yards and enter the nation's metal supply consumer products.

Some sources of radioactive materials lack adequate control, sufficient accountability, and proper disposal processes. Found or abandoned sources are described as “orphan” when their identifying marks have been removed or damaged. The government has become more concerned with this issue as increased radiation monitoring has uncovered a growing number of these “orphan” sources.

Some industrial devices contain a small quantity of safely enclosed radioactive material called a “sealed “source. On the other hand, if this equipment is disposed of improperly or sent for recycling as scrap metal, the sealed source accidentally may be placed in the possession of someone who is not licensed to handle it. For instance, if a steel mill melts a sealed source containing radioactive material, it contaminates the metal, the processing equipment, and the facility. More importantly, the mill workers will be exposed to the radiation.

Officials at scrap metal yards and disposal sites use sensitive radiation scanners on incoming shipments to uncover unwanted radioactive materials before these materials can cause widespread contamination. Unfortunately, the protective housings around radioactive sources, in addition to making the sources safe, make detection difficult.

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Who is protecting you

The States

Each State in the United States has one or more programs to address radiation protection and to respond to and investigate alarms at scrap metal facilities.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

EPA develops training programs for the metal processing and demolition industries.

EPA is working with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe to develop an international protocol for the radiation monitoring of scrap metal.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Agreement States

The primary mission of NRC is to protect public health and safety and the environment from the effects of radiation from licensed nuclear reactors, sealed sources containing radioactive material, and waste facilities. Thirty-three states have signed formal agreements with NRC, providing the states regulatory responsibility over small quantities of special nuclear material and its source and byproducts.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

DOE operates the National Recycle Program to control radioactive scrap metal from decommissioned nuclear facilities.

U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)

DOT protects people, property and the environment by regulating transport of hazardous materials including radioactive contaminated scrap metal by highway, rail, air, and vessel.  These Hazardous Materials Regulations are contained in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

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What you can do to protect yourself

Personally coming into contact with something believed to be an orphan source or contaminated scrap metal is highly unlikely; however, if you think you have found an orphan source immediately contact your state radiation authority, and avoid touching the item.

Three basic ways to limit unnecessary exposure include:

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Radioactive Source Reduction and Management
April 2, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Radiation Protection Division
On this website you can read about EPA’s efforts to retrieve and dispose of unwanted or orphaned radioactive sources. EPA is also working to find non radioactive substitutes for industrial equipment that uses sealed sources.
Radiation: Facts, Risks and Realities (17pp, 799 K [about pdf format]) [EPA 402-K-10-008]
April 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This brochure provides general information on ionizing radiation.
Directory of Agreement State and Non-Agreement State Directors and State Liaison Officers
April 2, 2012. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
This site provides a list of Nuclear Regulatory Commission Agreement and Non-Agreement State contacts.
Reports of theft or loss of licensed material
April 2, 2012. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
This site explains the requirements for reporting the theft or loss of NRC licensed sources. Unreported sources fall out of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s control structure and become “orphaned” sources.

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