What to do with radioactive scrap metal
Friday, 16 September 2022
Scrap metal should always be handled with care during the recycling process, regardless of whether it appears to be dangerous or not. If you are ever unsure of what to do, call an expert.
Typically, most household scrap metal items are not hazardous, and you’ll be able to follow standard recycling processes to dispose of them. However, occasionally you may come across scrap metal which is has been impacted by radioactive materials (such as microwaves).
Generally speaking, these radioactive scrap metals won’t be in a typical household. If they do occur, they are in very small or in uninhabited older properties. There are also dedicated professionals who will process the materials and handle their disposal for you.
Occasionally some radioactive material may be found on a vehicle. At ASM Metal Recycling we have radiation detector units, which all vehicles must drive through to test if the material onboard is radioactive. If the detector alarm sounds, we send the vehicle through a couple more times in case of a false positive.
In the office, we have a Geiger meter that can find the precise piece that has triggered the detectors. Any pieces that are found are always safely disposed of. All of this ensures we do not send on radioactive material to be recycled.
Where can radioactive substances be found?
Some of the main sources for radioactive material in the metal recycling world include:
‘Orphan’ sources: Typically, these are redundant industrial equipment, like gauges or medical equipment, which will contain some radioactive elements. These sources are usually found out of regulatory control but are generally rare.
Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM): NORM sources generally contain uranium-238 and thorium-232 and their associated radioactive decay products. Examples of NORM materials that you may occasionally come across include zircon sands or refractory materials.
Low Specific Activity (LSA) scale: LSA scale radioactive decay products can accumulate on the inside of items from machines involved in certain chemical processes, such as old piping. LSA decay can also occur in items from the oil and gas industry. They can also be found in various alloys like welding equipment that contain natural thorium and consequently radioactive thorium.
Imported steel: More recently there have been incidents where steel that has been imported into the UK has contained radioactive material, due to an orphan source being melted with the steel during the production process.
Nuclear material: Again, generally not found in or around the home, but any items involved in a nuclear supply chain may also contain radioactive material.
How can I tell if something is radioactive?
It is impossible for humans to detect ionising radiation. But, if you come across something with the international symbol for radiation (a yellow triangle with a black pictogram), you should behave as if it is radioactive until confirmed otherwise.
What do you do if you find radioactive material?
In the unlikely event that you do find something you think is radioactive, the most important thing is not to touch it. Instead, move well away from the area and contact the manager of your local scrap metal yard, who will be able to escalate your concern to the appropriate processing plant.
What are the risks of dealing with radioactive material?
Typically, there are two main things to keep in mind with this sort of substance.
External radiation: This is where the gamma rays the source material is omitting can pass through the air and the human body, potentially causing serious damage.
Internal radiation: This is where any radionuclides (an unstable form of a chemical element that can emit nuclear radiation) are incorporated into the body through ingestion, inhalation and through cuts and grazes on the skin. Anyone handling LSA scale or NORM products needs to be wary of internal radiation, due to the dust the metal creates during handling.
What happens if you touch radioactive metal?
Radioactive sources should never encounter bare skin directly. If the radiation source is intense, it can cause burns. If handling a radioactive substance is unavoidable, then the minimum protection required is gloves and tongs.
What is the process for managing a radioactive substance?
Any processor will have their own due process to handle radioactive scrap metal. This will usually include:
- Running the item through a monitor to confirm the presence of radioactive materials.
- Isolating the item in the designated position.
- Analysing the item using a hand-held gamma dose rate meter to establish if it’s safe to approach whilst cordoning off the area.
- Getting in touch with the radiation protection adviser (RPA) to seek further advice about handling, storing, and disposing of the contaminated items or area.
- Informing the local Environmental Agency, HSE and the consignor.
Can you destroy radioactive material?
It is possible to decontaminate some high-value scrap metal, but ideally this should be done before it reaches the scrap yard.
This is simply an informative article. As a rule, radioactive doses found in the home rarely occur, and when they do, it is in very small amounts. Those processing the materials are trained to handle any situation, so you can always get in touch if you’re concerned about a particular item around the home.
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