Low-background steel

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Low-background steel is any steel produced prior to the detonation of the first nuclear bombs in the 1940s and 1950s. With the Trinity test and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and then subsequent nuclear weapons testing during the early years of the Cold War, background radiation levels increased across the world.[1] Modern steel is contaminated with radionuclides because its production uses atmospheric air. Low-background steel is so-called because it does not suffer from such nuclear contamination. This steel is used in devices that require the highest sensitivity for detecting radionuclides.

The primary source of low-background steel is sunken ships that were constructed before the Trinity test, most famously the scuttled German World War I warships in Scapa Flow.[2]

Radionuclide contamination[edit]

A body counting room at the Rocky Flats Plant in Denver, Colorado, made entirely from pre-World War II steel

From 1856 until the mid 20th century, steel was produced in the Bessemer process where air was forced into Bessemer converters converting the pig iron into steel. By the mid-20th century, many steelworks had switched to the BOS process which uses pure oxygen instead of air. However as both processes use atmospheric gas, they are susceptible to contamination from airborne particulates. Present-day air carries radionuclides, such as cobalt-60, which are deposited into the steel giving it a weak radioactive signature.[3]

World anthropogenic background radiation levels peaked at 0.11 mSv/yr above natural levels in 1963, the year that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was enacted. Since then, anthropogenic background radiation has decreased exponentially to 0.005 mSv/yr above natural levels.[a]

There have been incidents of radioactive cobalt-60 contamination as it has been recycled through the scrap metal supply chain. This is due to recycling sealed radioactive sources such as radiotherapy machines, not from the continued recycling of steel.[5]


Devices that require low-background steel include:

As these devices detect radiation emitted from radioactive materials, they require an extremely low radiation environment for optimal sensitivity. Low-background counting chambers are made from low-background steel with extremely heavy radiation shielding. They are used to detect the minutest nuclear emissions.[6]


  1. ^ The estimated per-capita effective dose of ionizing radiation due to global fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing was highest in 1963, at 0.11 mSv/yr, and subsequently fell to its present level of about 0.005 mSv/yr (see figure II). This source of exposure will decline only very slowly in the future as most of it is now due to the long-lived radio-nuclide carbon-14.[4]


  1. ^ "Radiocarbon dating". University of Utrecht. Retrieved 2019-09-24.
  2. ^ Butler, Daniel Allen (2006). Distant Victory: The battle of Jutland and the Allied triumph in the First World War. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International (Greenwood Publishing Group). p. 229. ISBN 0-275-99073-7.
  3. ^ Adams, Cecil (10 December 2010). "Is steel from scuttled German warships valuable because it isn't contaminated with radioactivity?". The Straight Dope.
  4. ^ Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation. United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) (Report). I. New York: United Nations. 2010 [2008]. p. 6. ISBN 978-92-1-142274-0. UNSCEAR 2008 Report.
  5. ^ Reducing Risks in the Scrap Metal Industry – Sealed Radioactive Sources (PDF). International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (Report). Austria: United Nations. September 2005. pp. 2–6. IAEA/PI/A.83 / 05-09511. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 June 2006.
  6. ^ Aaron, D. Jayne; Berryman, Judith (1997). "Rocky Flats Plant, Emergency Medical Services Facility". U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management. HAER No. CO-83-S (Rocky Flats Plant, Building 122).