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»“Orphan” Radioactive Sources in Scrap Metal

This page provides an overview of how radioactive sources end up lost or abandoned and the technology we are using to locate these sources.


Sometimes radiation sources are disposed of improperly and end up in scrap metal yards. With the help of advanced technology, we are finding ways to locate misplaced radiation sources before they get into scrap metal yards and enter the nation's metal supply consumer products.

Some sources of radioactive materials lack adequate control, sufficient accountability, and proper disposal processes. Found or abandoned sources are described as “orphan” when their identifying marks have been removed or damaged. The government has become more concerned with this issue as increased radiation monitoring has uncovered a growing number of these “orphan” sources.

Some industrial devices contain a small quantity of safely enclosed radioactive material called a “sealed “source. On the other hand, if this equipment is disposed of improperly or sent for recycling as scrap metal, the sealed source accidentally may be placed in the possession of someone who is not licensed to handle it. For instance, if a steel mill melts a sealed source containing radioactive material, it contaminates the metal, the processing equipment, and the facility. More importantly, the mill workers will be exposed to the radiation.

Officials at scrap metal yards and disposal sites use sensitive radiation scanners on incoming shipments to uncover unwanted radioactive materials before these materials can cause widespread contamination. Unfortunately, the protective housings around radioactive sources, in addition to making the sources safe, make detection difficult.