I was scanning my reader feed when this headline leapt out at me: Radioactive Scrap Metal is New Threat to Global Supply Chains. This article references an incident at Bed, Bath and Beyond where a shipment of metal tissue box holders set off a radiation detector in California. While in this particular instance the product was not considered dangerous (it was taken off the shelves anyway), it still opens an interesting set of questions as more and more of our metal supply comes from metal recycling.
According to a Bloomberg Article, “More than 120 shipments of contaminated goods including cutlery, buckles and work tools like 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.” It isn’t too hard to see how this happens; equipment using radioactive materials (medical equipment, power stations, food processing and mining equipment, not to mention weapon manufacturing), just like any other product, have a limited lifespan. This equipment is being scrapped and is finding their way into smelters, being melted down and reused in new products. This process does not get rid of the radioactivity— it only spreads it to other materials. Many steel companies now scan for radioactivity before processing scrap steel…and for good reason. Cleaning a smelter to remove radioactive material can cost millions of dollars and disrupt production for a week. The Steel Manufacturers Association (SMA) has a significant portion of their public environmental policy page dedicated to radioactive scrap which they call “A major environment problem.” According the SMA, “Current U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations for generally licensed devices do not provide for tracking of individual owners. The lack of accountability makes it easy for licensees negligently to discard sealed sources in scrap and evade prosecution.” The issue of radioactive scrap metal is top of mind with the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA). They have published a pamphlet on the issue that describes the problem and steps that recycling companies need to follow to ensure that they are not recycling radioactive materials. So, what does this mean for the supply chain? Companies need to be concerned about any trace of radiation above the background norm in their products. Not because this is necessarily dangerous, but because customers simply will not buy the product if they find out that it is even slightly radioactive. U.S. consumers especially are very nervous about radiation. While it is likely that significantly radioactive supply “should” get caught at the border, there is still a risk that some radioactive supply could get through. That being said, how do you ensure that your supply chain remains free from radioactive material? Make sure (or have your component manufacturer check) that the supplier of the metals used in your products has a policy to not use radioactive scrap metal and further, scans incoming scrap metal for radiation. If your metal supplier does not have safeguards in place, consider using another supplier. Is this a concern for your business? Have you taken steps to address this? If so, comment here and let us know.