Nuclear waste may be used in household products

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The Independent Online
Brussels has cleared the way for radioactive nuclear waste to be used in recycled consumer goods such as glass, plastics and metals. A European Commission directive will allow very low levels of radioactive substances to be handled without reporting or an authorisation licence.

The move was called "lunacy" by environmentalists who said there was no certainty that even the smallest quantities of radioactive material were safe.

The new Euratom directive will permit tiny quantities of the bone-seeking isotope Strontium-90, and 300 other radioactive isotopes, including Plutonium 239 and Caesium 137 to be recycled with other waste.

Dr Chris Busby, author of Wings of Death, which highlights the dangers of low-level radiation from the nuclear industry, said that the new thresholds were "dangerously high"and "could allow huge amounts of radioactive waste to be diluted and disposed of by this route".

Seemingly acknowledging the dangers, the directive expressly forbids the addition of radioactive substances in foodstuffs, toys, personal ornaments or cosmetics. But other forms of disposal, including recycling into household goods, are permitted without authorisation if the quantities are below the new given levels. Augustin Janssens, of the EC radiation protection unit, agreed that there was no safe level of radiation but said it was not practical to regulate for very low levels.

The directive was adopted by the EU last summer, and member states are due to transpose it into their national law by 2000.

In Britain, the use, handling and disposal of even tiny amounts of radioactive substances requires authorisation under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993. Any change would require new legislation passed in Westminster.

Britain's National Radiological Protection Board was involved with the EC in drawing up the new radioactive "exemption levels". Dr John Cooper, head of the NRPB's environmental assessments department, said they had agreed on levels for some 300 isotopes at which the risks to people were "trivial".

He said it would not be practical to impose regulations on university and hospital laboratories which might handle tiny quantities of radioactive materials.

Dr Busby has produced new evidence that children living close to nuclear sites are at risk from leukaemia caused by exposure to low-level radiation. The link has been made in a statistical analysis of mortality rates among children under the age of 15 living in the south Midlands.

The childhood leukaemia mortality rate in South Oxford, which is close to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, is nearly two and a half times the national average. In Newbury, which is near to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, the figure is almost double the national rate.

The AWE said its research showed the impact of the site on the local environment was "negligible". It said: "We cannot see any link between our operations and the [incidence] of cancer."