French authorities made headlines last month when they said as many as 500 sets of radioactive buttons had been installed in elevators throughout France. It wasn't an isolated case.
Improper disposal of industrial equipment and medical scanners containing radioactive materials is allowing nuclear waste to trickle into scrap smelters, contaminating consumer goods, threatening the $140-billion trade in recycled metal and spurring the United Nations to call for increased screening.
Last year, U.S. Customs rejected 64 shipments of radioactive goods at the nation's ports, including purses, cutlery, sinks and hand tools, according to data released by the Department of Homeland Security in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. India was the largest source, followed by China.
"The world is waking up very late to this," said Paul de Bruin, radiation safety chief for Jewometaal Stainless Processing in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the world's biggest stainless-steel scrap yard.
On Oct. 21, the French nuclear regulator said elevator buttons assembled by Mafelec, a Chimilin, France-based firm, contained radioactive metal shipped from India. Employees who handled the buttons got three times the safe dose of radiation for noon-nuclear workers, according to the agency.
Operations at the factory are now back to normal and the firm has cut ties with the "source" of the radiation, Mafelec said. "In the worst-case scenario the exposure would have been under that of a medical scan," Chief Executive Gilles Heinrich said.
Abandoned medical scanners, food processing devices and mining equipment containing radioactive metals such as cesium-137 and cobalt-60 are often picked up by collectors and sold to recyclers, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear arm. De Bruin said he sometimes found such items hidden in beer kegs and lead pipes to prevent detection.
There may be more than 1 million missing radioactive sources worldwide, the Vienna-based atomic agency estimates.
"We're passing by the first era of nuclear applications, so disused material is increasing," said Vilmos Friedrich, an agency inspector. "Until recently, there hasn't been licensing" for industrial devices.
Smelting such items contaminates recycled metal used to make new products and the furnaces that process the material.
Nucor Corp., the biggest U.S.-based steel producer, has spent more than $1 million installing and upgrading radiation detection equipment at its plants, said Steve Roland, environmental director for the Charlotte, N.C., company.
"Orphaned sources are a significant problem worldwide for the recycling industry," Roland said. "Anything governments can do to remove sources from commerce and hold people accountable for the loss is to our benefit."
The atomic agency may recommend that governments increase monitoring of scrap shipments at international borders and recyclers screen all material entering their plants, according to draft guidelines circulated by the agency.
Overall, 123 shipments of contaminated goods have been denied entry to U.S. ports since screening began in 2003, according to Homeland Security data. Of those, 67 originated in India, 23 came from China and 20 were from Canada. This year, 32 cases had been reported through early July.
Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy are funding a $60-million program, the Secure Freight Initiative, to install radiation monitors at ports around the world.
At Jewometaal, De Bruin switched on a dosimeter, the modern equivalent of a Geiger counter. The device squealed as he entered the corner of a warehouse where radioactive metals are stored until they are sent to Covra, the Netherlands' state-run nuclear waste dump.
In his office, De Bruin donned gloves before selecting a pair of long tweezers and pulling a piece of cesium-137 the size of a match head out of a bottle.
"If you get a dose of this on your hands it's no problem," said De Bruin, a former customs agent who has worked in nuclear research reactors. "If you get it in your lungs, you die."