Radioactive material ‘mishaps’ in Tornio factory

Safety measures mean none of the workers at the steel plant was exposed to harmful radiation.

File picture of a Geiger counter with radioactive materials in the background / Credit: iStock

Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Authority STUK is investigating four recent incidents at a factory in Tornio that involved a radioactive material called americium.

It happened at the Outokumpu steel factory, and STUK says that in three cases, americium was detected after it had already been melted down with scrap metal.

In the fourth incident, the americium was found before it got melted.

“The disappearance of radioactive substances is always a serious matter. Potential health risks have been limited to the factory site, but due to the right radiation protection measures, personal and environmental exposure has been avoided” says STUK’s Director of Radiation Control Tommi Toivonen.

The Outokumpu plant takes scrap metal from all around the world and usually radioactive material is detected before it goes to the smelter. STUK might investigate one incident per year, so it raises concerns when four incidents happen in such a short space of time.

“They buy scrap metal from all around the world, they come there in the ship, a big ferry that brings a lot of scrap metal to the factory. And somewhere in the world someone has lost a radioactive source, they are attached to some scrap metal piece, or they look like a machine, they just end up in with the scrap metal” Toivonen explains to News Now Finland.

Americium is an element that is used in tiny amounts in household smoke detectors. However, there would need to be significantly more than that to be detected as a problem during the Outokumpu factory’s screening process.

Although it is radioactive, the effects can be blocked with protective clothing and no workers were reported at risk at the factory, although they were issued with respirators as a precaution.

“We have forwarded information to the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA in order to find out the origin of radiation sources. The radiation user is always responsible for the proper disposal of the radiation source” says Toivanen, who suspects the americium came from outside the EU.