Recycling Nuclear Waste

nuclear waste
A new controversy surrounds a plan to get rid of nuclear waste.

Recycled radioactive metal could end up in everyday products like forks and knives but some question the safety of such a practice. CBS News Sharyl Attkisson reports.

Thousands of tons of radioactive metal are the ugly remnants of the global nuclear age.

A private factory in Tennessee is planning to get rid of nuclear waste in a new and - for many - scary way by "cleaning" radioactive nickel from the nearby Oak Ridge nuclear facility to recycle it into metal products used every day like forks and knives.

Some say nickel is a unique metal, a unique substance, because it cannot be completely cleaned but BNFL's Jim McAnally asks, "Can anything be completely cleaned?" McAnally heads up the controversial nickel recycling project.

"We're dealing down at such low levels that I, on a personal basis, do not feel that it poses any risk to the public," he says.

The nickel will still be radioactive when sent off into the steel supply to be used in everything from bicycles and baby spoons to pots, pans and zippers.

It's all about money. The federal government can save hundreds of millions of dollars by recycling the radioactive metal rather than burying it.

U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., says the whole plan is crazy.

"What level of radioactivity is safe? What would you trust for yourself, for your children and for your family?" asks Klink, adding that level has not been established.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will only say it doesn't see any immediate public safety threat.

But the steel industry sees a big problem. It doesn't even want the recycled nickel because it is afraid frightened consumers will stop buying metal products.

"You might have to go to the ridiculous position of having each individual take a Geiger counter into a store or restaurant or anywhere that you went to try to read if the material that you were buying or what you were using had radioactive material in it," Klink says.

McAnally rejects such talk as alarmist. He points to a salt substitute that he says has a radiation level five times greater than the nickel his company cleans up.

But you'll just have to take his word for it. There are no plans for independent inspectors to examine all the nickel before it hits the marketplace beginning next fall.