The European Union is set to crack down on radioactive scrap metal.

The European Commission has proposed a new EU Council Directive on the control of high activity sealed radioactive sources in order to prevent radioactive contamination from containers.

This is in response to an increasing number of contamination incidents involving sealed sources of radioactive material. The Commission notes, “Sealed sources may imply particular risks because of their small size, often the size of a pen or smaller…The metallic capsule containing the radioactive substances makes likely their collection by members of the public or by metal scrap handlers”. The Commission’s proposal acknowledges that sources of radioactive scrap metal have recurrently been found in scrap-yards and in metal production facilities around the world.

The Commission is also ‘well aware of the possibility of accidents occurring with the mismanagement of high activity sealed radioactive sources’. Most accidents have so far occurred outside the European Union, but in 1998 one source was smelted by accident in a Spanish factory, contaminating six workers and 270 tonnes of steel.

It is estimated that 500,000 sealed sources have been supplied during the past 50 years to operators in the EU’s current 15 Member States. Of these, approximately 110,000 sources are currently in use. However studies have estimated that up to 70 are lost from regulatory control each year.

The proposal is for the Directive to be under the EU’s Euratom Treaty, supplementing the Basic Safety Standards Directive, and requires ministers’ approval before it can be adopted. The new controls would cover all radioactive sources emitting a dose greater than one millisievert per hour at a distance of one metre. This is ten times more stringent than the level proposed by a Euratom expert committee last year.

The Commission’s articles recommend numerous safety measures to be enforced by Member States, including prior authorisation for any practice involving a high activity source, and the identification by each manufacturer ‘by a unique number where practicable, marked on the source itself’. Authorisation would only be granted if the operators could guarantee safe final disposal.

Member States would also need to provide regular testing and recording of container movements, introduce penalties for operators who breach the law, and also be prepared to deal with ‘orphan high activity sources’, the isolated contamination events which could not be traced to a specific user.

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