“Nuclear detection is like looking for a needle in a haystack”
In the service of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, Dutch Customs monitors compliance with the Dutch Nuclear Energy Act. Radiation expert René de Goede knows everything about this special task for Customs. “If radiation levels are extremely high, there’s an imminent danger to people.”
“Radioactivity means that material spontaneously emits ionising radiation”, radiation expert René de Goede tells us. “You can’t feel it, you can’t see it and you can’t smell it but if you get too much of it, you can fall seriously ill and die. The Dutch Nuclear Energy Act serves to protect society against the harmful effects of radiation. In our country, responsibility for the so-called radiation hygiene policy lies with the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection – ANVS. It’s one of the cooperation partners of Customs: on their instruction, we check incoming and outgoing sea and air cargo for banned radioactive substances. To that end, rings of nuclear detection gates were installed at strategic points in the port of Rotterdam and at Schiphol. We also have mobile vehicles at both main ports to detect sources of radiation in logistical streams. All customs officers who work in this process – plus the colleagues who use detection equipment to examine modes of transport and cargoes for clandestine goods – are trained radiation protection supervisory officers. Our department also has two officers who are trained radiation experts, of whom I’m one.”
“Every year, millions of containers come through the gates and on average, the alarms go off a couple of hundred times every day. In maybe 99.99% of the cases, the alarms can be explained, they’re harmless and no further action is needed. The reason is that there are a lot of goods that by nature give off low, acceptable doses of radiation, such as porcelain and cat litter. We call them NORMs, naturally occurring radioactive materials. They also set off the alarm of the sensitive detection equipment used by Customs. If the measured radiation level exceeds a certain limit, these kinds of materials may be subject to a duty to declare or obtain a permit. If we come across such goods, we will halt them and immediately contact our colleagues of the ANVS. They tend to come over to us to carry out their own measurements and take samples and at times, they then consult with the National Institute for Public Health and Environmental Protection – RIVM.”
“Nuclear materials pose a big risk, which is why they are stopped at the border. Examples include substances to make nuclear weapons but also non-natural – illegal – radioactive sources. The latter are found in cargoes of scrap metal on a fairly regular basis. If radiation levels are extremely high, there’s an imminent danger to people. In such cases, Customs will take measures in consultation with the ANVS, such as demarcating a safe zone by means of hazard tape.”
“Ultimately, it’s up to the inspectors of the ANVS to decide what happens to a batch that has been stopped. They have three options. The first is to return the cargo to the country of origin – as radioactive transport, including all the necessary paperwork. A second option is for the owner of the goods to choose a different application for his product that is allowed and to apply for a permit with the ANVS. The final option is to have the goods taken away to COVRA, the Dutch nuclear waste processing and storage company. That is, relatively, the most expensive solution. If at all possible, the ANVS will recover the costs from the company in question.”
This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2019’. Click here to read the full publication.
Navigate further, and also read ‘Radiating scrap metal causes a stir’.