At European level, 173 cases of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials had been reported between 1992 and 1998, the group said last week. A spokesperson for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the magnitude of the problem.
According to Legambiente, trafficking in radioactive metals is a particularly serious problem in Italy, Europe's largest scrap metal importer: the group last year claimed that Italy was sitting on a "radioactive waste bomb" (ENDS Daily 26 November 1999).
Most radioactively contaminated scrap is thought to originate in eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union (ENDS Daily 8 September 1998). It enters Italy by rail and road and is passed off as 'safe' scrap and mainly purchased by foundries in the north.
Between 1996 and 1998, over 15,000 tonnes of radioactive metal was detected at the three main northern Italian border entry-points and sent back. But the evidence suggests this is merely the 'tip of the iceberg' and that far larger quantities of scrap metal "of doubtful provenance" are slipping into Italy undetected, Legambiente says.
In 1997, Lombardy's regional health authority reported the discovery of more than 100 lorry-loads (2-2.5m tonnes) of illegally imported radioactive scrap metal in the Province of Brescia alone, Legambiente points out.
Such materials pose a risk to human health and there are concerns to avoid repetition of an accident in Spain in 1998 when a foundry accidentally smelted radioactive material, spreading a plume of caesium-137 across five European countries (ENDS Daily 16 June 1998).
Legambiente, tel: +39 06 86 26 81.
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