Taking Radiation Seriously
Radioactivity scares people. Maybe it's all those "duck-and-cover" movies we watched when we were kids, or the B-list science fiction flicks that flooded our drive-in movie theaters. Back in my fire service/hazmat days, instructors at the academy gave these directions for handling a potential radiation hazard: "Hold your radiation survey instrument at arm's length and point it toward the suspected source. If the needle moves, pull back, evacuate the area, and call the feds." We fear what we don't understand, and it seems obvious to me that too few people paid close attention during physics class. You can tell just by the way people fear nuclear power plants and microwave ovens. The former can’t trigger a nuclear explosion, and the latter don't pose a radioactivity hazard. Trust me on this.
Given this seeming paranoia, let's consider for a moment what would happen if some nut case detonated a so-called "dirty bomb" on a city street or in a shopping mall. (A dirty bomb does not cause a nuclear explosion. It’s a standard explosive device that scatters radioactive shrapnel.) No matter what experts might say in the days and months following such an attack, a large segment of the American people would remain convinced that the corner of Maple and Main was forever fatally radioactive. Also, given the nationwide overreaction to much more limited events—say, the tragic killings in Columbine High School in 1999, in which the actions of two sociopaths in Colorado caused schools in Fairfax County, Va., to enter a state of virtual lockdown—a dirty bomb in Boston would likely shut down Los Angeles and Houston as well. Fear is like that. It causes people to do irrational things.
Now imagine what misfortune might lie in the future if some of the radioactive material from our hypothetical dirty bomb were traced back to a particular scrap recycling facility. For that matter, think of what might befall the entire industry if a scrap company fingerprint were found on evidence uncovered at the scene of a post-bomb cleanup. It gives you a chill, doesn't it?
According to the federal government, hundreds of thousands of orphan radioactive sources are out there somewhere, many of them of a size, design, age, and severity that allow them to effectively fall through cracks in the framework of radioactive rules. Many of these sources were installed as gauges or medical equipment decades ago, only to be forgotten and ultimately loaded into the back of a truck as scrap. That happens every day. What happens from that point is solely up to you. Certainly, responsible yards scan every incoming load for radioactive materials using reliable radiation detection technology. They regularly calibrate and maintain the detection equipment, and they have procedures in place to handle alarms when they occur. Similarly, just to be sure, responsible yards check outgoing scrap to make sure they’re not inadvertently sending a hazard onto the public roads (and to protect their consumers, whose business pays the bills). In most cases, there’s no regulation that requires yards to do this—they just do it because it’s the right thing to do.
On the other end of the outgoing scrap shipment lies a mill or other consumer, at whose gates the detection procedure is duplicated before it accepts the scrap. On paper, it’s a system that looks like it should work every time. There’s a problem, though: Because these orphan sources were designed to be used safely in a workplace, they’re typically well shielded with lead and/or concrete to reduce the levels of energy the source can emit. Thus, even potentially high-level emitters can test as harmless as long as their shields are in place. Take that shielded source and bury it in the middle of a railcar or roll-off, and suddenly it’s invisible to all but the most sophisticated detection systems. Of course, that harmless, fully shielded source has a tough future ahead of it. After it’s shredded, sheared, or baled, the outer shield will likely be compromised, at which point the potential radiation hazard can become very real—and very, very expensive to clean up.
I encourage you to take a hard look at your own radiation protocols. Do you have a solid plan for dealing with detection alarms, and do the appropriate employees know what to do? Have you trained your inspectors and equipment operators on what potentially radioactive equipment looks like? Do you have telephone numbers handy for the appropriate radiation-control officers in your state? Is your detection equipment up to date, and do you maintain it properly? Obviously, there’s a right answer to every one of these questions. Let’s take them as seriously as society would take our failure to do it right.
Source: Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI)