Prevent Radiation “Sneakage” to Your Country

Not sure if “sneakage” is a correct word or fits into this context, but for me, as a non-native English speaker, it kind of a sounds like it. If you combine sneaking and leakage, I hope you get the point.

There are many ways to fight against illicit trafficking of radiation and nuclear materials, but first this threat has to be recognized. Then its about priorities, how to grade the level of risk and the consequences. I’m not going to dive any deeper on the risk assessment procedure, instead I share some examples of border control, from what I’ve seen in past years.

I have crossed more than 80 country borders, and quite a few of those for business purposes. Some borders have been fully automated for both passport control and radiation monitoring point of view, whereas in certain border crossings it might be difficult to recon which building like structure I should show my passport at.

Krister Liljegren in Malaysia 2020.

Regarding radiation monitoring at border crossings, I would most likely highlight the capabilities at Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland. Not just because Environics has secured the border, but also based on our Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) approach to protect our country borders. I very much like the description in this context: “we prefer to move data instead of people”. Not sure where it was written or who said it, but I’ll give all the credits to STUK for this statement.

Environics RanidPort at Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland.

Radionuclide Identification with Spectral Data – Expert Support – Grant/Deny Access of Material or People

Bit simplified perhaps, but if you have good enough equipment at the border, providing valid spectral data 24/7, then you don’t need trained radiation experts at the monitoring point, being enough to provide the expert support from the distance.

Giving some perspective for this topic, at one time I visited radiation authorities in another country, explaining them the benefits of 24/7 reachback/expert support. This might sound like too good to be true, but in the middle of the meeting they got a phone call from the local airport due to a radiation alarm. Immediately after the phone call one person from this meeting took two pelicases and left to the airport to confirm the alarm. Later I heard it was nothing dangerous, however sending a radiation expert to the airport in this type of situation could be avoided: “move data instead of people”. Not always so black and white of course. In many times it’s about the available funds, which leads back to the risk assessment etc., but I wasn’t claiming its an easy task.

Money… I wonder how to translate one famous Finnish proverb in English: “Talking about something what you don’t have”. Not sure if this hits the English speaking audience in the same way it hits the Finns. Anyway, money is the driving factor when planning the radiation protection to the borders. What is the minimum level and what we can achieve by investing bit a more? Is it just the equipment price or should we consider the costs related to different operational procedures in long term?

One experience for the price discussion… In many border crossings you see the radiation portals after every passport control desk, so basically there could be some 10-20 lines in a row and they are all equipped with individual ports. Now I’m making a statement, which is not based on facts but a guess – I assume in most or all of these cases, the actual end user has not paid the system by themselves. At least the vast majority of these projects have been funded by a 3rd party. Surely this is a very effective way to monitor the radioactive material movement, but its not reachable for most of the customers. It should be possible to control the radiation safety in the border, also by leading the people’s movement through certain locations equipped with detection instruments. So, the costs could be controlled up to a certain level.

Then we could link human resources to this context. What are the required capabilities for the people operating the radiation monitoring system at your country borders? I know, or at least I’ve been told, that in some countries the authorities in the border stations have got extensive training and education to be radiation experts. Meaning that they would be able to interpret also the spectral data from the measuring equipment. Nevertheless, I’m sure this is not the case for most of the borders around the globe. At this stage I’m going to refer data movement instead of people – already for the third time.

Example of spectral data, I believe its something to do with Co-60… but why the peaks look different? Who you gonna call? Maybe not the Ghostbusters this time, but a Radiation Specialist.

Why would you need to send the expert to the site to confirm the alarms and to give hands on guidance, when all (or most of it) could be done remotely? How to handle the situation in two or three incidents at the same time, in different parts of the country? If you just sent the experts to the incident site and a few hours later hell broke loose in other location… I’m guessing that at a certain stage you run out of experts. Also traveling a few hundred kilometers takes time and usually, in the case of an emergency, you don’t have much to waste. So why not let the experts sit comfortably in the office and let them focus their efforts to the subject matter, which is to provide expert support and advice to the teams at emergency site(s)? Fine, sometimes your presence might be needed at site, but surely not every time.

As a final note I would refer to an exercise which we did between Finland and Estonia back in 2017, regarding the role of expert support in nuclear security. It will give one case example on how you could fight against the radiation “sneakage” to your country.

“Source characterization is not a simple task, requires much experience, and advanced analysis tools. In this work, the scientific help from the experts was of vital importance for correct response which shall be in balance – not underestimating the threat, nor an overreaction with unjustified countermeasures.”

Border Security Report | March/April 2018

Don’t underestimate, don’t overreact… easier said than done!

The views and opinions expressed in Bertin Environics Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Environics Oy. Any content provided by the authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, neither they serve as a scientific statement.


Krister Liljegren

Area Manager

I am Krister, a tech orientated sales traveler with over 20 years working experience in global safety and security industry. Chemical, biological, and radiation affairs have been keeping me busy for past 15 years at Environics. When I’m not needed at the office, I like to go out with my beardless friends as people assume I’m their leader!

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