Outokumpu’s Tornio facility in Finland, one of Europe’s biggest steel plants, has suffered four radiation contamination incidents since July, the country’s nuclear watchdog STUK said on Tuesday.
In the latest incident, a batch of scrap metal at the plant was found on Oct. 12 to contain americium, a radioactive element that can be dangerous and potentially deadly if inhaled or swallowed by employees.
Workers were forced to wear oxygen masks but were not exposed to radiation, STUK said.
The concentration strength was about 1-2 gigabecquerels, it said, adding that the events’ recurrence qualifies as an International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) radiation incident.
“Outokumpu takes this matter seriously and does its utmost to prevent radioactive material ending up in production,” the company said. “Radioactive material is strictly prohibited and cannot be accepted at the plant.”
All four recent incidents involved americium, according to STUK.
“It seems there is a bigger portion of scrap metal around the world that contains americium,” STUK director Tommi Toivonen said. “It is really difficult to find, unlike other radioactive elements.”
The firm said it has addressed the issue with its suppliers, but declined to name them when asked by Reuters.
STUK said in the Oct 12 incident the contaminated materials were shipped from the Netherlands and the Baltics, but were likely to have originated outside Europe. Outokumpu said output was unaffected and products were not contaminated.
The origin of the imported scrap metal is not tracked, and the presence of radioactivity could be accidental or a deliberate way to get rid of contaminated materials, STUK said.
“It is a serious incident, there is a risk for employee safety,” Toivonen said. “They cleared it out, but now they have hundreds of tons of radioactive waste to get rid of.”
The company said its contracts with suppliers of scrap metal clearly prohibit radioactive material, but said it can in some cases be very hard to detect.