U.S. expands aircraft radiological screening

By John Quarterman


The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has for some time been screening all land traffic (cars, truck s, buses, pedestrians) for nuclear material through the use of sensitive fixed radiological sensors.

At the border crossings, these sensors provide the border personal with an instant reading if any vehicle or person is emitting radiation. The screening is sophisticated enough that not only the level of radiation is measured, but also the type and the source material is indicated.

Not only are the CBP personnel able to determine if the radiation level is high enough to be dangerous, but they can also determine the likely radioactive source, whether it be a medial isotope from a medical test, or radium from a watch or aircraft instruments, or something much more sinister such as U235 or U238 or other radioactive isotopes used in construction of a dirty bomb.

The CBP did not possess until recently, a handheld instrument that was sophisticated enough to automatically distinguish and discriminated between radiological sources in a convenient fashion. The CBP has therefore only undertaken a spot check approach to radiological screening of aircraft in previous years.

However as of Dec. 30, 2007, the CBP has started a program of 100% screening using a handheld radiation detector device that allows them to do virtually the same screening as the land ports - at all general aviation airports – right out on the ramp.

CBP officers, who meet aircraft at a port of entry will as part of their inspection protocol, scan the aircraft, the occupants and all cargo. According to the CBP this radiological screening part of the inspection procedure should take only a few minutes but may take as long as 15 minutes.

If an anomalous reading is encountered on the initial inspection, a second more detailed inspection will be undertaken.

The Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) website (http://www.saic.com/products/security/gr-135/ ) describes the GR-135 RIID handheld screening device as follows:

The handheld GR-135 Plus Identifier Radioactive Isotope Identification Device is an advanced version of its well-known predecessor, the GR-135. It is outfitted to detect the presence of radioactive emissions in field operations where ease of use and simplicity are critically important. The GR-135 Plus is a gamma-ray spectrometer that performs three functions in one handheld instrument. The instrument allows the user to Survey (locate radioactive source), measure Dose (determine the exposure hazard level) and Analyze (identify) nuclides for risk assessment. The GR-135 Plus features new advanced, high-performance nuclide identification software, new high-sensitivity Neutron detector and simplified user interface screens.

The CBP (according of CBP officers from the Northern New York ports of Massena and Buffalo), have every intention of streamlining this new inspection process as much as possible and of safeguarding people’s privacy when undertaking the inspections.

That said, the inspection process according to the CBP inspector-supervisor I spoke to, commented that the Pilot of the incoming aircraft can speed up and expedite the inspection by declaring all radiological sources in the initial call to the CBP, before crossing the border, and again on meeting the CBP at the Port of Entry.

This includes declaring any radiological instruments containing radium such as old army compasses, old watches etc, which should be declared in advance.

Even more important is that any persons who have undergone recent radiological medical testing such as Bone Scans or Stress tests with injected barium, thorium or other radioactive isotope, should obtain a letter from the medical facility on their letterhead explaining the name of the patient, the test that has been given, and the radiological isotope and the dosage.

I have been told that the CBP is sensitive to privacy concerns regarding medical conditions and will act "appropriately." The pilot should canvass his passengers (and himself / herself) well in advance to make sure the passengers are aware of the requirement to declare any radiating devices, any recent medical radiological test ahead of time, and the need for backup-documentation in the case of a medical test involving radiation.

Flying across the U.S. border has become a little more complex, but with reasonable preplanning, this new screening should not be an issue.