Indian Radioactive Scrap Not Just a Random Occurrence

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Over a year ago we published a pair of articles involving radioactive stainless steel materials and the risk inherent in global supply chains. These two posts remain some of the most popular content we have ever published on this site. My hypothesis as to why involves a simple question that metal sourcing professionals have probably asked themselves when those stories broke do we have any radioactive stainless steel in our supply chain? We can’t answer that question (the likelihood is no) but we now see a couple of parallels to those stories written back in February of 2009 with an article that appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal involving radioactive waste landing in a local metal scrap yard in New Delhi India. One person died and seven others have become sick.

Ironically, (we would argue perhaps not), this incident, like the earlier one, involves India and it involves a gamma cell machine sold by a local university via auction to a Delhi scrap dealer. The gamma cell machine belonged to the chemistry department where students tested gamma rays on chemicals, according to the WSJ, though the machine had not been used since 1985. The machine contained the radioactive isotope Cobalt-60 used in medical applications including radiation for cancer treatments as well as nucleonic gauges according to the article. The scrap dealer acquired the machine in February.

As we often say on these virtual pages, the first piece of data is a point, the second a line and the third a trend. A link in our earlier piece covered a different contamination issue, also involving Indian metal. We can’t help but think India lacks laws and regulations to help safeguard metal supply chains. This story, however, raises additional issues around how buying organizations ensure safety of supply.

“In the U.S., radioactive sources are required to be certified and traced wherever they are used. It is the responsibility of the owner/user to maintain traceability. Proper disposal of these sources are also the responsibility of the owner/user, ” says Franky Griggs, GM Nucor Birmingham Inc.  The Birmingham plant, according to Franky has four opportunities to detect a source prior to melting with plans to add an additional layer of redundancy. In addition, “typically, our scrap suppliers have source detection at their entrances as well. The last thing that they want to do is to send a source [radioactive] to us. It is rare, but we have rejected material when we detect a source. Nucor’s detection equipment alarm has gone off after an employee returned from radiation treatment as well as when they had been using an x-ray machine 1000 feet away on a structural lifting device.

We asked Franky to describe to MetalMiner the process Nucor takes when bad material comes in, “when a bad source is identified (and it does happen) the process is to notify the state environmental agency that in turn provides a permit for the carrier to transport the material back to its origin/most-previous-owner. Once a source reaches the melting process, potential exposure greatly increases both in terms of safety of employees as well as capital costs of a cleanup.

Here is what my colleague Stuart wrote in a post on August 25, 2009 describing potential solutions to China’s lead poisoning smelter scandal, “Yes greater government control, more efficiently enforced standards, stamping out of corruption that allows plants to ignore safety procedures and on occasion even produce metals without permits. Can we say ditto for India?

–Lisa Reisman

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