How is Radioactive Metal Recycled?

How is Radioactive Metal Recycled?
Radioactive Metal waiting to be processed at a scrap metal plant

How to Recycle Radioactive Metal

While beneficial, metal recycling comes with its share of hazards. During the recycling process, a component such as an aerosol can create harmful reactions if it is not properly treated. Similarly, metal recycling can be influenced by radioactive materials. This situation occurs especially when the item is quite old. So, during the metal recycling process, the professional must check all the items to determine whether there are any radioactive metal. Special metal detectors are used during the process that alerts the expert when they come in contact with radioactive metal or material.

What Are Radioactive Materials?

Radioactive materials comprise elements that are or have become radioactive through unnatural processes such as nuclear reaction. There are two forms of radioactive components – open radioactive sources and sealed radioactive sources.

  • Open Radioactive Sources

Open radioactive sources imply that radioactive materials are not sealed. The radioactive material derived from open sources is generally in the form of liquid, gas, and in some cases, powder. Open radioactive sources are used in various industries, medical diagnostics, research, etc. A common use of open radioactive sources in research and industry is centred on conducting tracer studies.

Abandoned radioactive fairground

The open radioactive sources follow a physical, biological, or chemical process. These sources are derived beyond regulatory control and typically come from redundant industrial materials such as medical equipment, gauges, etc. While they are quite rare, these sources are still present.

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials

Radioactive materials that are derived naturally and where humans are highly exposed to ionising radiation are known as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials or NORMs. They occur from activities such as oil and gas production, burning coal, and using fertilisers. Uranium, potassium, thorium, and other prevailing radioactive elements are primary examples of NORM.

These components have been on the Earth’s surface, and get concentrated in form of uranium ore, which can be mined. Low Specific Activity (LSA) scale radioactive decay products are often generated by plants and factories that are involved in the chemical process. They are largely found in the oil and gas industry.

  • Calibration Sources

Calibration sources are utilised essentially for the purpose of calibration of radiometric tools that are used in the monitoring process or in radiological protection. Capsule sources in which radiations exude from a particular point are used for beta, gamma, and X-ray calibration. A high level of radiation is used in the calibration cell, a room with a thick wall to prevent employees from being exposed.

Risk of Radioactive Substances

Radioactive waste

Exposure to radiation can damage healthy tissue by altering the cell structure and harming the DNA. The degree of damage depends on the type of radiation and the amount of radiation absorbed by an individual. Additionally, certain cells in our bodies are more sensitive to radiation than others.

Small or moderate exposure to radiation goes unnoticed, and most cells are naturally repaired. While some cells recover, others tend to become cancerous. Cancer is the most harmful risk associated with radiation exposure. The higher the exposure to radiation, the greater the chances of developing cancer.

Along with cancer, there are many other ways that this exposure can damage human health. In rare cases, the exposure damages genetic components in reproductive cells, resulting in genetic mutations. This can impact the future generations of the affected person. Furthermore, exposing an embryo or foetus to radiation can ameliorate the possibility of birth defects. While radiation exposure is quite rare, at the time, due to the nature of work or locality, an individual is constantly exposed to a high amount of radiation, resulting in him/her being frequently sick.

  • Nuclear Component

Materials that are derived from the nuclear fuel cycle are also derived in the scrap supply chain. While countries have strict rules associated with the contamination of scrap metal for recycling, in the UK, there has been increasing disposal of scrap metal containing radioactive material.

When dealing with external radiation, it is important to note the materials in this source exude gamma rays and can move through the body. In internal radiation, radionuclides are integrated into the body via inhalation, ingestion, and cuts and scratches on the body.

How to Treat Radioactive Metals

The following are some of the ways that you can treat radioactive metals:

  1. Be Mindful

Coming into contact with radioactively contaminated metal is a rare occurrence. However, it is important that you should be aware of it and what to do when you come across it. The first thing to keep in mind is not to touch the material and immediately contact the local radiation office.

  1. Protect Yourself from Exposure

The high degree of radiation exposure can create health hazards, so it is important that you limit your exposure to it. Don’t stand near the radioactive material. If you are standing in the same premises as the radioactive material, wear a thick protective coat to create a barrier between the radiation source and you.

Radiation exposure can be harmful if not treated well. The presence of radioactive metal scraps is something that needs to be given due attention. It is important that recycling companies have adequate equipment to detect the radiation well and that they are aware of the procedure that needs to be taken when they discover the presence of radioactive material that contains heavy radiation.