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Saturday, 8/14/99

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DOE, state defend plan to recycle radioactive metals

By Laura Frank

Both the state and federal governments yesterday defended a Tennessee-approved plan to clean and recycle radioactive metals that could then be used in such products as orthodontic braces and flatware.

The recycled metal, which would retain a low level of radioactivity, "will not pose a risk to human health or the environment," T.J. Glauthier, deputy U.S. Secretary of Energy, wrote to two congressmen who raised concerns about the plan earlier this week.

Milton Hamilton, commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, said the plan is safe and vital to the cleanup of the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation. The site is one of several Energy Department weapons plants that are among the most contaminated in the nation and now must be cleaned.

"Recycling is the only way we're going to be able to clean up Oak Ridge," Hamilton said in an interview. "I think we're on the right track. (The recycling plan) may be precedent-setting, but it's going to be repeated and repeated not only in Tennessee, but in other states as well."

Earlier this year, Hamilton's department amended the license of an Oak Ridge company that will use a new process to clean metal from the site, then sell it to scrap companies to be made into new products. In doing so, the state set a precedent that federal regulators had been wary of setting, and it did so without any public input.

Hamilton said the law did not require public forums on the plan. Tennessee was able to set the standard because it is one of 30 states given such authority by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The project will recycle at least 100,000 tons of metal including 6,000 tons of internally contaminated nickel from Oak Ridge buildings where uranium was processed to make bomb fuel.

More than 185 environmental and consumer organizations from around the world oppose the plan.

"While it may not be a large risk, it makes common sense that an increased dose of radiation increases risk," said Dr. Tim K. Takaro, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He researches exposures at the University of Washington departments of medicine and environmental health.

U.S. Reps. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Ron Klink, D-Pa., wrote Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last week raising concerns about the plan. Glauthier, on behalf of Richardson, said DOE officials would set up a meeting with them.

Yesterday, Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican who represents Oak Ridge, said the legislators' concern is misplaced: "Every day, all around the U.S., contaminated metal is being cleaned and recycled and resold. The state of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge work force has the proficiency and the experience to handle this work."



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