Radiation in scrap metal sets EU alarms ringing

 

The curious part of living near the source of a radiation alert is how quickly it stops being a general topic of conversation. The silence of the danger seems to transfer itself to those at risk, and mostly people say nothing once the initial panic has passed.

It is now nearly two months since nuclear alarms were triggered in several European countries, with the apparent cause being a radioactive cloud of dust from a steelworks near Algeciras, at the southern tip of Spain.

Of course people here are worried, but human nature being what it is, they are more immediately concerned about whether the radiation incident could possibly affect their jobs. The steelworks in question, Acerinox, provides work for about 2,000 families in an area with nearly 30 per cent unemployment.

The radiation alert, however, has far wider implications.

Acerinox imports scrap metal for recycling, something done by steelworks all over the world. But what has now become apparent is that nobody is assuming responsibility for the contents of the scrap metal - and merchants are not required by law to give a clean bill of health to their product.

In past weeks, three contaminated cargoes have been rejected by Spanish factories equipped with radiation detectors.

Internationally there is a continuous process of dismantling industrial equipment with a radioactive content and unscrupulous dealers are including this in cargoes of other bits of old iron.

The latest alarm was caused by the release of the isotope, caesium-137. This was contained in industrial scrap metal that had been brought into Spain from Colombia. Either through ignorance or deliberate deception, the cargo was not declared dangerous and was loaded on a ship with merchandise destined for human consumption.

It arrived at the Algeciras steelworks undetected, and was melted down in one of the Acerinox ovens. There is no EU law that obliges ports or steelworks to install radiation detectors. Acerinox is one of the few in Spain that has taken this precaution, though for reasons yet to be revealed, the system failed last May. It was several days before the contamination was discovered.

Since then, Spain's Nuclear Security Council has been literally trying to pick up the pieces - trying to gather up all the affected ash, some of which had been taken to ordinary rubbish dumps before it was realised it was radioactive. It is now being transported a couple of hundred miles by road to a nuclear cemetery near Cordoba.

In Madrid, Antonio Calvo, speaking for the Security Council, is insisting that everything is just fine: "The whole area has been decontaminated. There was and is no danger to the public. Yes, lettuces from the vicinity show some contamination, but you would have to eat 100 kilos of lettuce for 10 years before you even reached the permitted level."

He maintains that the Acerinox leak was of no serious consequence, but does admit that the absence of control over the world's scrap metal is of real concern. So much so that in September there is to be an international conference in Dijon, France, to discuss the matter.

Here in Spain the government and the Nuclear Security Council announced the findings of their investigations into the Acerinox incident. It was the first time a radiation leak of this sort has happened in Spain, or at least the first time that one has been detected. It has catapulted the local ecologists into unknown territory and they are now seeking help from the EU.

Maetin Caballero, of the Cadiz province environmental group, AGADEN, says the Acerinox incident should be a warning to everybody. "This isn't something that just affects Spain. There have to be controls introduced on the sale of scrap metal. This is an ecological crime and should be treated as such."

No study has been carried out in Europe of the radioactive content of scrap metal. A US study, however, showed an alarming amount of uncontrolled radioactive material entering steelworks there.

Some radioactive materials could end up forming part of the steel after recycling process, though this is not the case with caesium-137, the cause of the Acerinox alert.

But it could happen with, say, cobalt-60, that has also been detected in a scrap metal cargo in Spain.

Paradoxically, the Acerinox factory has come under the spotlight precisely because it has taken steps to detect radioactive scrap.

The Nuclear Safety Council subsequently said the leak might have come from Ireland, the UK or the US.

It also claims, without details, that there was a similar caesium-137 link to an Irish steelworks in 1990.

Meanwhile, the sick humour that emerges in times of real concern is evident here. There is an endless series of jokes about things that glow in the dark.

A freak double-headed lettuce has been offered by a local shopkeeper as an "Algeciras special".