With about 20 British nuclear power stations waiting to be decommissioned in the next two decades, recycling of this type could become big business. BNFL hopes to be able to profit from the "ground-breaking" process it has used to decontaminate material from the Capenhurst plant in Cheshire.
But while the industry is sure its methods are safe, anti-nuclear campaigners are claiming a new European directive will make allow material to be sold on to the open market with higher levels of contamination still in them.
The aluminium industry says the metal sold so far could not have been used to make food or drink cans. But no-one can be sure exactly where it has gone.
What is known is that about 7,000 tonnes of mildly radioactive metal from the Capenhurst gaseous diffusion plant in Cheshire, decommissioned in 1992, has been chemically washed and sold to metal dealers. They have shredded all but the biggest chunks and then sold on to companies making cars, windows and other consumer goods. Anything from the metal lamp on your desk to the pans in your kitchen could include some of it. Last night, the Liberal Democrat environment team tabled a Commons motion calling for the sales to be stopped. One member of the team, the Lewes MP Norman Baker, has written to the Deputy Prime Minister calling for him to act against this "unmarked and dubious trade". Mr Prescott should order an urgent investigation, he said.
"If they are selling radioactively contaminated material on the open market without labelling it they are inviting trouble," he said last night.
Tony Juniper, campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, said the material should have been stored in a safe place rather than sold.
"The more you come into contact with this material, the more you are at risk. They would have to measure all the contacts that people had with it in order to make a judgement about what is safe," he said.
Ministers have already promised a public consultation later this year on the Euratom Directive, due to be implemented within two years, which campaigners say will permit material containing higher levels of nuclear waste to be recycled.
Although 99.7 per cent of the metal from Capenhurst has already been sold over a seven year period, the exercise is just a beginning for the nuclear industry. A spokesman for BNFL said the Capenhurst exercise had been such a success that the methods would certainly be used elsewhere.
"Obviously it's a business and as more nuclear installations which require decontamination come along there is potential there for us to use this technology in these areas ... it's recycling. If you have a cup of coffee you don't throw the cup away, you reuse it," he said.Reuse content