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Originally published Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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The growing global threat of radioactive scrap metal

The discovery of radioactive metal tissue boxes at U.S. Bed, Bath & Beyond stores in January highlighted one of the topics drawing world leaders to a nuclear security meeting in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday and Tuesday.

Bloomberg News

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I find it interesting that there is no mention of the use of radio active munitions... MORE

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Going shopping? Don't forget your wallet and credit card. Or your Geiger counter.

The discovery of radioactive tissue boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond stores in January raised alarms among nuclear-security officials and company executives over the growing global threat of contaminated scrap metal.

While the U.S. home-furnishing retailer recalled the boutique boxes from 200 stores nationwide without any reports of injury, the incident highlighted one of the topics drawing world leaders to a nuclear-security meeting in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday and Tuesday.

The biannual summit, convened by President Obama for the first time in 2010, seeks to stem the flow of atomic material that has been lost, stolen or discarded as trash.

As U.S. and European leaders tackle the proliferation of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium in countries such as Iran and North Korea, industries are confronting the impact of loose nuclear material in an international scrap-metal market worth at least $140 billion, according to the Brussels, Belgium-based Bureau of International Recycling.

Radioactive items used to power medical, military and industrial hardware are melted down and used in goods, driving up company costs as they withdraw tainted products and threatening public health.

"The major risk we face in our industry is radiation," said Paul de Bruin, radiation-safety chief for Jewometaal Stainless Processing, one of the world's biggest stainless-steel scrap yards. "You can talk about security all you want, but I've found weapons-grade uranium in scrap. Where was the security?"

More than 120 shipments of contaminated goods, including cutlery, buckles and work tools such as hammers and screwdrivers, were denied U.S. entry between 2003 and 2008 after customs and the Department of Homeland Security boosted radiation monitoring at borders.

The department declined to provide updated figures or comment on how the metal tissue boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond, tainted with cobalt-60 used in medical instruments to diagnose and treat cancer, evaded detection.

Rachael Risinger, a spokeswoman for Union, N.J.-based Bed, Bath & Beyond, said last month that "all possibilities to address this issue are being explored and implemented as appropriate."

In January, the company said it had been informed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal government agency overseeing radioactive material, that "there is no threat to anyone's health from these tissue holders." It said they had been withdrawn "out of an abundance of caution."

Rotterdam-based Jewometaal, which found 145 nuclear items in scrap last year and 200 in 2010, reports incidents to Dutch authorities and the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Cleaning a smelter of radioactive material that was erroneously melted inside can cost a company up to $53 million and disrupt production for a week, de Bruin said.

The Vienna, Austria-based IAEA is working with the scrap-metal industry to draft more stringent rules to increase radiation monitoring, bolster reporting requirements and improve disposal.

Between 350 million tons and 550 million tons of iron scrap traded hands in 2010 for about $400 a ton, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of International Recycling, a global-recycling-industry association.

"The general public basically isn't aware that they're living in a radioactive world," according to Ross Bartley, technical director for the recycling bureau, who said the contamination has led to lost sales. "Those tissue boxes are problematic because they're radioactive and they had to be put in radioactive disposal."

Abandoned medical scanners, food-processing devices and mining equipment containing radioactive metals such as cesium-137 and cobalt-60 are picked up by scrap collectors, sold to recyclers and melted down by foundries, the IAEA says.

Dangerous scrap comes from derelict hospitals and military bases, as well as defunct government agencies that have lost tools with radioactive elements.

Exposure has dangers

Chronic exposure to low doses of radiation can lead to cataracts, cancer and birth defects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A 2005 study of more than 6,000 Taiwanese who lived in apartments built with radioactive reinforcing steel from 1983 to 2005 showed a statistically significant increase in leukemia and breast cancer.

Industry and regulators are working to define an allowable limit for radiation in products that isn't hazardous to customers' health, according to the draft copy of the new IAEA rules for scrap handlers. This week's Seoul nuclear-security summit will deal for the first time with the threats posed by uncontrolled radioactive sources, said Elena Sokova, executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non- Proliferation.

India and China were the top sources of radioactive goods shipped to the U.S. through 2008, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Bartley, a metallurgist who has tracked radioactive contamination since the early 1990s, said there's no evidence the situation has improved.

India's problems

India's radiation-detection system can't cope with the amount of incoming scrap, said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research and lobbying group. Two years after an Indian scrap-metal worker died from radiation exposure, the world's second-most populous country hasn't installed alarms, the Ministry of Shipping said in December.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the government body responsible for the safe use of radioactive material in India, said in an email it has increased the number of on-site inspections and awareness programs to tighten controls. .

"The same thing could easily happen again tomorrow," said Deepak Jain, 65, who owns the yard where the worker died. "We have no protection. The government promised a lot, but has delivered absolutely nothing."

With assistance from Tara Patel

in Paris.

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