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Workshop Aids Nuclear Security Experts in Testing and Evaluating Technology Used for Border Monitoring

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Participants characterizing detector performance to various radiation sources. (Photo: C. Friedly/IAEA)

The testing and evaluation of handheld devices that determine what type of radiation is present, for example in vehicles or containers that are crossing borders, was the focus of a workshop held in June at the IAEA’s laboratories in Seibersdorf.

The devices, known as spectrometric handhelds, can identify the exact type of radioactive material and its location. Such tools are used for example to quickly locate material that set off radiation alarms at custom control stations.

“We use spectroscopic handheld detectors to monitor radioactive material at the harbour, and it is important that we do not delay the shipment. We must detect within a short time and distinguish between harmless or innocent goods and suspicious materials,” said Jeong-Wan Kwon, Head of the Radiological Emergency Preparedness of Response Department with the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety in the Republic of Korea. 

Many border stations have radiation portal monitors installed to detect illicit trafficking. These monitors sometimes raise alarm also for harmless quantities of naturally occurring radioactive material, which is present in goods such as ceramic tiles and fertilizers. Using spectrometric handhelds, the cause of the alarm can be quickly determined, enabling customs officers to prevent the accidental transport or the deliberate smuggling of radioactive material while avoiding delays to legitimate trade.

The 35 participants from 18 States shared experiences, knowledge and expertise on topics such as ensuring that the detectors used by frontline staff are working correctly and are easy to use.

Iain Darby, Head of the IAEA Nuclear Science and Instrumentation Laboratory, said: “Our challenge is to support the inspectors at places such as border crossings to prevent accidental transport or deliberate smuggling of more dangerous radioactive materials amongst the traffic of harmless commercial commodities such as ceramics, without causing huge economic disruption.”

Other workshop topics included test planning and setup, instrument familiarization and calibration, and test execution, analysis and reporting. It also focused on modelling and simulation.  

Participants tested how well different devices detect different radioactive sources at different distances.

The 25-29 June 2018 workshop also supported the efforts of the Border Monitoring Working Group – a cooperation and coordination mechanism between the European Union, the United States and the IAEA – to detect illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive material that is out of regulatory control.

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