San Diego Union-Tribune

August 19, 2001

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Radioactive wastes slip through cracks

By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- It was after dark at a Vons grocery store in San Ysidro
last spring when a man walked in, quietly told a clerk there was a bomb in the parking lot, then disappeared.

When firefighters arrived, they discovered not a bomb, but a small,
thermos-shaped container holding five capsules of radioactive material that
hospitals use to treat cervical cancer.

Health officials measured radiation so high that the capsules could have
caused severe burns if held or pocketed long enough.

San Diego and state authorities are still investigating how these capsules
wound up outside a grocery store. But because of ignorance, error or an
unwillingness to pay high disposal fees, such episodes are more common than
one might expect in a country with some of the world's strictest rules for
storing, shipping and discarding nuclear material.

Some of the material found in landfills and neighborhoods is relatively benign,
like the hospital diapers worn by patients treated with radioactive materials.
Some is more dangerous, like the cancer-causing Strontium 90 found three
years ago in the soil of a City Heights lot where children played.

John Hickey, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's chief of materials safety,
said the number of lost or stolen radioactive sources has remained fairly
steady over the years. But the steel industry's concern, he said, did inspire the
commission to raise fines last February for those who lose or illegally dump
such waste.

"We agree that any loss of control is undesirable, but considering the broad
use of radioactive material for both medical and industrial purposes, I think
we have reasonable controls," Hickey said.

President Bush wants to make nuclear power a cornerstone of his national
energy policy. His plan makes only passing reference to radioactive waste,
whose disposal has become so entangled by politics that there is no final
resting place for debris from the cores of nuclear reactors and only three
dumps that take lower-level radioactive waste. Because of this shortage, it
can be quite expensive to properly discard nuclear waste, and very tempting
to get rid of it illegally.

One nuclear watchdog organization says tighter controls are needed over
discarded nuclear waste.

"The NRC has made efforts to improve its control over such sources, but for
the number that (are found in the public), their control is not adequate," said
Diane D'Arrigo, radioactive waste project director with the Nuclear
Information and Resource Service.

Dave Lochbaum is a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned
Scientists. For five years, he has monitored the reports the regulatory
commission files when radioactive material is found somewhere other than an
authorized dump. Such reports are on the rise, Lochbaum said, though it is
unclear if that's because more people know that improper disposal is a crime
or because illegal dumping happens more often.

"Most of the time, it's because people didn't follow procedures -- didn't label
something properly -- and so it went some place it shouldn't have gone,"
Lochbaum said.

In California, someone who discards radioactive material in a manner that
poses "substantial danger to public health or safety" can be fined $100,000 a
day and be imprisoned for as long as three years.

The regulatory commission frequently reports the loss or theft of radioactively
contaminated X-ray gauges and density gauges. In the steel industry, there is
mounting concern about radioactive items that get mixed into scrap metal that
goes to recycling plants. The United Nations created a team of specialists two
years ago to find ways to deal with the problem, while the Clinton
administration suspended the sale of potentially polluted scrap metal from
Department of Energy nuclear facilities last year.

"These (radioactive materials) have very strict federal licensing, but those rules
are not always followed," said Tom Danjczek, president of the Steel
Manufacturers Association, which reports cleaning costs as high as $15
million when radioactive items are melted with scrap metal. "I think it's just
ignorance -- people not knowing what they're dealing with."

Much of the radioactive matter found at recycling plants comes from hospitals and medical labs. Because the material is typically encased in lead, as were the San Ysidro capsules, the radioactivity is not detected until fire melts the lead and the exposed radioactivity trips plant alarms.

In their lead container, the capsules found in San Diego were probably not
dangerous, said Jon Dillon, senior health physicist for San Diego County's
Department of Environmental Health.

Yet, Robert Gregor, supervising health physicist for the California Health
Department's radiologic health branch, said the closed container emitted
"more radiation than almost all (federal) regulations would allow in an area
where the general public has access."

Without the casing, Gregor, Dillon and other experts agreed that the capsules
could have caused harm, depending on how long and how closely a person
came in contact with them.

The unprotected capsules gave a radiation reading of 5.8 rem. A rem is a unit
of radiation exposure to a human being. Federal law says people who work
around radiation should get only 5 rem a year.

"While it can be safe (for) two radiation workers who know what they're
doing, it's a pretty high number," Gregor said.

With that exposure, a person might get a metallic taste in his mouth, feel
nauseated and dizzy or experience a rash that could develop into ulcerous
burns. At this level, blood tests have shown a reduction in white cell counts.

The container -- about the size of a carton of powdered Kool-Aid -- was
labeled with the name of a company called Nuclear Associates, which has
since been absorbed by a Yorba Linda-based company that sells products
used in medical diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy.

Another label read, "To: Tijuana."

San Diego authorities believe the capsules were manufactured by a Burbank
laboratory, purchased by Nuclear Associates, then sold to New York and
Ohio hospitals that used the capsules to treat women with cervical cancer.
Typically, the capsules would have been returned to the manufacturer or a
leasing company for recycling, or sent to a nuclear waste dump.

A Nuclear Associates employee whom authorities had interviewed did not
return a phone call.

"I'm surprised to see something like this because (radioactive waste dumps)
were available," Dillon said. "Maybe someone didn't know how to dispose of
it."

Another possibility, said one state official, is that someone didn't want to pay
the high cost of sending it to a nuclear waste dump. The five capsules -- each
no more than an inch long and an eighth-of-an-inch thick -- could have cost
from $5,000 to $20,000 to dispose of properly, Gregor said.

"(The capsules) probably weren't medically useful anymore," Gregor said,
"and it's likely someone didn't want to pay the cost to get rid of them but also
didn't want to leave them out some place where they could hurt someone."