Almost exactly two years ago I attended a steel industry conference in Dalian memorable for two things: the sushi buffet, and a manic sales representative for a radiation detection company. Throughout the three days that I spent there, I watched as this gentleman approached every attendee – sometimes more than once – with a brochure and a lead-in that went something like this: “Did you know that not one Chinese steel mill has radiation detection? Did you?” This turns out to be a wild exaggeration (though not by much), but it came to mind in recent weeks when (via danwei), I learned that a steel mill in Shanxi Province had apparently melted down a Cesium-137 nugget bought in a load of steel scrap (time for a new steel mill, by the way).
A couple of things that I’ve been meaning to write in regard to this subject.
First, this is not a China-specific problem. It’s a developing economy problem (though it continues to plague sloppy scrap yards in developed countries). Countries, like China, that have rapidly expanding steel industries tend to focus on volume instead of quality, and environmental safety falls by the wayside. Partly, this has to do with cost: radiation detection equipment (not to mention greenhouse gas abatement technology) is relatively expensive, and provides no obvious, immediate benefits.
Second, due to geography, politics, and demand (for steel scrap), China is an ideal dumping ground for radioactive scrap from other developing nations. Specifically, I’m talking about decommissioned military hardware from the former Soviet Union, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Mother Russia, herself. It works like this: Western China, like the rest of China, has an insatiable demand for ferrous scrap metal (at least, it did before the market crashed last year) to feed steel mills devoted to infrastructure-related products like rebar. Meanwhile, the former Soviet republics have a whole lot of decommissioned military scrap but lack the domestic demand into which they can sell it. So, over the years, the former Soviet republics have provided China with a small but steady volume of steel scrap. All fine and good except for the fact that military scrap – especially former Soviet military scrap – is notorious for being laden with radioactive contamination. As a result, (since 2007) AQSIQ – the Chinese quality inspection advisory body – officially inspects 100% of the incoming scrap shipments from Russia and Central Asia. And this seems to be a good idea: according to AQSIQ statistics in my possession, the inspection body halted 202 “incidents” of radioactive scrap shipments from the aforementioned regions between January and October 2007 (unfortunately, I don’t have more recent data).
It is, in fact, the case that many Chinese steel mills that purchase steel scrap don’t have radiation detection equipment. If they did, that ball of Cesium-137 might very well have been stopped at the plant gates, instead of being run through the mill (though reports that it was encased in lead might argue against that theory). But I’ve noticed, recently, that the situation is changing, and that larger, more successful Chinese scrap yards have begun installing radiation detection equipment. And because these yards tend to buy their inventories from smaller yards (in addition to imports) they have a proportionally larger inspection shadow.