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Getting rid of radioactive mattresses isn’t easy

July 17,2018
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Nearly 17,000 mattresses tainted with radioactive material are piled up at a storage yard in Dangjin, South Chungcheong, on Monday. [SHIN JIN-HO]
Not in my bedroom or my backyard, say the residents of South Chungcheong’s cities of Cheonan and Dangjin.

At issue are 40,000 mattresses tainted with radioactive material. Daijin Bed recalled the mattresses in May after two dozen of its products were found to emit dangerous amounts of radon, a radioactive chemical substance linked to cancer and various respiratory diseases.

The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission concluded that the annual radiation dose of the mattresses tested exceeded the safety standard for processed products of 1 millisievert (mSv) per year.

Daijin Bed promoted the beds as containing “negative ion powder,” which many Koreans believe is good for their health. But the negative ion powder used was monazite, a rare earth resource that contains uranium and thorium, which produce the harmful gas radon over the course of radioactive decay.

A storage yard in Dangjin is crammed with nearly 17,000 mattresses manufactured by Daijin Bed, which were moved there by Korea Post in June at the order of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

At the headquarters of the company in Cheonan sit another 24,000 mattresses. The company has yet to collect some 7,000 more beds from customers.

Residents of Dangjin started protest rallies at the yard until the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission announced on June 25 that it will move all the mattresses to Daijin Bed headquarters in Cheonan by July 15. The date has been delayed to Friday because of the threat of rain.

“If the government dupes us once more then local residents of all 31 towns of Dangjin will rush to the Blue House to protest,” Kim Moon-seong, community chief of the Godae-ri area, told the JoongAng Ilbo.

“There is talk that the mattresses will be incinerated here, which is complete hogwash.”

The problem is that people in Cheonan don’t want the mattresses either.

Some have been protesting in tents outside the entrance of the Daijin Bed headquarters since last month. Banners hung nearby read, “If you don’t like it, we don’t like it, too,” and “Radiation equals nuclear bombs.”

“We can’t trust the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, the president nor the prime minister of the country,” one Cheonan resident told the JoongAng Ilbo.

“The government is aggravating the fight between residents of the two cities,” Lee Cheol-ha, community chief of Panjeong-ri, a town in Cheonan, told the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Some of us residents have agreed to stop fighting with each other. The government had better take responsibility for whatever decision they make in the future.”

The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission plans to separate the covers and springs of the mattresses and shake off the monazite applied to them. The covers and springs will likely be incinerated and the monazite buried underground, though the commission has yet to finalize the plan.

The residents are concerned that in the process of incinerating the mattresses, the radioactive materials may become airborne. If they’re buried, they may affect groundwater.

Some experts criticized the government’s management of the issue.

“The government should have communicated with the residents sufficiently before taking action,” Yoo Jong-jun, executive secretary of the Dangjin branch of the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, told the JoongAng Ilbo.

“If the government decides to take the mattresses elsewhere, they will face the same kind of opposition from residents. So what they need to do is to talk to the residents and reach an agreement.”

The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission at a press briefing Monday at Dangjin City Hall requested Dangjin and Choenan residents’ cooperation in disposing of the mattresses. The commission added that the level of radiation detected at the storage yard in Dangjin did not exceed normal radiation levels.

BY SHIN JIN-HO, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]