WASHINGTON - The Energy Department took steps Thursday to ensure that radioactive metals are no longer recycled into braces, zippers, toys and other consumer products, ordering a halt to sales of thousands of tons of scrap metal left at nuclear weapons facilities.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said sales will not resume until weapons site managers can assure that the metals are free from any detectable radioactive contamination. He said that by year's end, he wanted a new standard to evaluate the material.
Supporters of the recycling program contend the levels of contamination are too low to pose a health and safety threat. Critics of such sales have argued that metals with any trace of contamination should not go into general commerce.
The Energy Department cannot say how much contaminated scrap metal already has been sold, although some estimates are ''in the low tens of thousands of tons'' over the years, according one government source, speaking on condition of anonymity. Records on such sales are incomplete, the official said.
''They don't know. They don't have an inventory on how much has gone out,'' agreed Richard Miller, an official of the paper Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union, which represents atomic plant workers. After the metal has gone into commerce, it is melted with other like metals and is not tracked, he said.
Richardson's decision to suspend further sales came six months after the department canceled plans to sell 6,000 tons of nickel from a defunct uranium enrichment plant near Oak Ridge, Tenn., because of concern the contaminated metal would go freely into civilian commerce.
Thursday's announcement stops the expected sale to private buyers of about 15,000 tons of metal including steel, aluminum, copper, and nickel used in machinery, furniture and remnants of torn down buildings at closed weapons production facilities.
Over the long term, the department has planned to sell about 30,000 tons of metals annually over 20 years as part of the decommissioning of many of the facilities that made up the Cold War-era nuclear weapons production complex.
It was not immediately clear Thursday how much of that metal eventually will be sold for recycling when the new standard is established.
Richardson said the department was studying the possibility of recycling much of the contaminated steel for reuse within the weapons complex for such things as storage crates for other contaminated material.
He said he was halting the sales ''to ensure American consumers that scrap metal released from Energy Department facilities for recycling contains no detectable contamination from departmental activities.''
''The suspension will remain in effect until our sites can confirm that they meet this new more rigorous standard,'' he said in a statement.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission for some time has been trying to develop a new minimum allowable contamination level for recycled material. It is not known when that standard will be issued.
Richardson's action drew mixed reaction from Capitol Hill.
Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said it was ''a nonsensical decision'' that he said ignored scientific evidence that the level or radiation found in the metals to be recycled do not pose a health or environmental problem.
He accused Richardson of trying to ''pander ... to key constituencies'' - a reference to the steelworkers union and many environmentalists who have opposed the recycling.
Wamp, whose district includes the Oak Ridge facility, said the program's suspension will cost hundreds of jobs at Oak Ridge and in recycling businesses in Tennessee.
But Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who was preparing to pursue legislation to suspend the recycling program, said Richardson's move was ''a responsible step to protect the health and safety of American citizens.''
Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., who also had criticized the recycling program, said the movement of contaminated metals threatened steelworkers as well as the public.
''Recycled scrap metals can end up in everything from cars to food containers,'' Klink said. ''Consumers have the right to know that when they use a skillet to make hamburgers or a kettle to boil pasta that these utensils will be free of radioactive contamination.''