Monitoring scrap metal radiation

About monitoring scrap metal radiation


At least 50% of the metal we use is recycled. Much of it originates from scrap metal which comes from a variety of sources and is melted together. In some cases, a number of these sources may have been radioactively contaminated either from natural sources (for example, soil) or artificial sources (for example, nuclear power plants).

What is the Issue?
Today the increasing international trade and transport of radioactive scrap metal is causing growing concern among Governments and industry leaders alike. While on the one hand, recycling of metal scraps is an economically and environmentally viable argument, on the other, the health, environmental and financial risks of radioactive contamination are very real. Therefore, monitoring and control of radioactive scrap metal have become important issues to be tackled at the international level.

What can we do about it?
Radioactive scrap metal can be disposed of, decontaminated or recycled. The choice of option will depend on the level of contamination. Three points of intervention or steps to deal with radioactive scrap metal have been identified:

  • Prevention – improved controls at the source can prevent initial entry of radioactive scrap metal into the metal recycling industry;
  • Detection – regular and well-established checks using radioactive detection instruments such as portals and hand held devices can help detect radioactive scrap metal;
  • Reaction – safety procedures are necessary to ensure proper handling of detected sources. Interventions can include identification of the levels and type of contamination, identification of origin, storage, transport etc. Appropriate reporting is essential and should be encouraged in order to ensure the improvement of security measures to reduce the likelihood of future incidents. "Looking back and peering forward" (English, French, Russian) is a PDF document which gives more background information.

What is being done by UNECE?
In 2001, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) published a report on the “Improvement of the Management of Radiation Protection Aspects in the Recycling of Metal Scrap”. The report recommended measures to avoid the introduction of radiation sources into the metal recycling stream. As a result of that report, it was decided to set up an Expert Group, which met for the first time in 2004 and again in 2006. The aim of the Expert Group was to encourage exchanges of experiences and practices with a view to promoting the harmonisation of best practices in preventing incidents from radioactive metal scrap and in dealing promptly and effectively with any such incidents. In order to obtain a better understanding of the current international situation concerning radioactive scrap metal a detailed questionnaire was sent out to over 60 countries in 2003 and 2005.

The analysis of responses to the questionnaires sent out in 2003 and 2005 and served as essential input into the development of International Recommendations on “ Monitoring and Response Procedures for Radioactive Scrap Metal”. These Recommendations were developed by experts in the field and agreed at the June 2006 UNECE Expert Group meeting. They provide a series of best practices and guidance to support different target groups to better prevent, detect and respond to incidents involving radioactive scrap metal.