Radioactive Shipments Could Harm Passengers and Crews

Lebanese officials have recently seized a half ton of radioactively contaminated sanitary pads at Beirut International Airport (CargoForwarder Global reported). It seems that this finding is only the tip of the iceberg since the transport of nuclear materials by air is rapidly increasing. We spoke on this subject with Rico Chandra, CEO of Zurich-based Arktis Radiation Detectors, a firm that offers solutions to detect and identify radioactive items.

Rico Chandra
Rico Chandra

Rico, it seems that the number of falsely declared items that are radioactively contaminated and transported by air is sharply increasing. If so, what are the reasons and which risks are involved for ground-handling staff?

RC: Typically the ground-handling staff does not spend hours in close proximity with a single shipment of air cargo. Conversely, passengers who might be sitting above the cargo in close proximity for several hours with nothing but aluminum and air in between would be much more exposed. The health risk posed depends on how much radioactivity we are talking about.

Is there any objective data available, illustrating and proving this development?

RC: Many factors contribute to radioactivity entering supply chains in different ways. War or the loss of regulatory control by governments in a region of crisis or nuclear accidents or high market prices for recyclables such as scrap steel can all drive such incursions.
The IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) is one possible source of data (see below).

Could it be that many contaminated goods are deliberately incorrectly declared, not containing any warning? If so, what are the legal and financial consequences for the shippers or consignees?

RC: It is easy to see a motivation for perpetrators to deliberately mislabel radioactive goods. If the consignee has radiation detection as a part of his incoming goods inspection process he is protected and can ask the shipper to take back the goods at the shipper’s cost. But suppose the consignee does not notice, and the questionable goods are components of his own products, he takes on the risk himself, as he could get sued by his own customers, or have to pay the cost to take back products and dispose of them appropriately, which is quite expensive for radioactive materials. As for the shipper: If the consignee refuses to accept the goods, the shipper now has cargo on his hands that as soon as detected to be radioactive, needs to be treated as hazmat.

International trefoil symbol for radiation
International trefoil symbol for radiation

Are controls insufficient or do airports and warehouses lack adequate technical means to detect contaminated shipments prior to loading them aboard an aircraft?

RC: There are large differences depending on the location and country observed, but in general a lot more could be done. Above all what is often missing is the knowledge on radioactivity and advice on how to handle this topic in an effective way.
Finally, any suggestions from your side how the supply chain can be made safer sharply reducing the transport of radioactive items, lowering the radiation risk for people facing exposure?

RC: Systematic radiation detection as a part of the incoming goods inspection process would be a worthwhile investment for shippers as well as manufacturers. This is by no means unachievable. On a national level the United States, for example, is not that far from screening 100% of incoming maritime containers and trucks on land borders for radioactivity. On a company level, private industry has started with including radiation detection in the incoming goods inspection process. This further increases the pressure on those who do nothing: While a consignee detecting radioactivity will refuse the goods, he cannot prevent these from being sold to the next, less thorough consignee.

Interview: Heiner Siegmund

This is what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says (excerpt):

“The illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials remains of serious concern to the international community. To help combat this problem, the IAEA maintains an illicit trafficking database (ITDB) of incidents which, so far, contains over 2200 confirmed incidents reported to the IAEA by the international community since 1995. Most of these incidents involve radioactive materials that could cause harm if used by terrorists or handled innocently by people who are unaware that the materials are radioactive. A small portion of the incidents involve uranium and plutonium - materials that if acquired in sufficient quantity by terrorists could be used to make a nuclear explosive.”

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