Radiating scrap metal causes a stir

Reports of dangerously high levels of radiation are rare at Dutch main ports. In the spring of 2019, however, a terminal at the Maasvlakte faced just that. An incoming container full of scrap metal – containing an unknown highly radioactive source – caused a commotion. Radiation expert Myke van der Pligt tells us what happened.

“In the 17 years that Customs has been engaged in nuclear detection, we haven’t come across many high-risk cargoes. However, this shipment of scrap metal from West Africa immediately put us on heightened alert. The measured radiation level was almost 0.5 Sievert/h, which means you’re at risk of falling seriously ill when standing in its proximity for a couple of minutes. In such situations, time and distance are crucial. Everyone had to move away from the container as soon as possible.”

“When the alarm went off and radiation levels turned out to be so extreme, we immediately contacted our colleagues at the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection – ANVS. After discussing the matter with them, our coordinator followed an in-situ emergency procedure that applies to situations such as these. Together, they made sure there was no unsafe situation at the terminal from the moment of detection. On the orders of the ANVS, the container in question was moved to a separate location for hazardous substances, which was completely screened off for safety reasons.”

“A few days later, under the supervision of the ANVS, the container was taken to a scrap metal company in the Botlek area for further investigation. The source of radiation was safely removed from the scrap metal by means of a claw. It turned out to be a medical equipment component, probably from a radiology department of one hospital or other. Unfortunately, people in developing countries don’t always recognise the danger of these objects and they just regard it as trade .... The machine component was probably transported to COVRA – the Dutch nuclear waste processing and storage company – in a special drum and kept there for long-term storage. We have eliminated at least one potential risk to man and the environment.”

This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2019’. Click here to read the full publication.

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