Radioactive Borders (part 3)

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2012 by Charles Glassmire


Feb. 4, 2012

Radioactive Borders (part 3)

          It is now the 20th of July 2010 near Genoa on the Italian coast.  Radiation inspector Enzo Montagna stands on the Voltri shipping dock, beside a rusty red cargo container off-loaded on the 13th from a ship. The Geiger Counter he holds is detecting a radiation level sufficient to kill an exposed human within eight hours. Something inside the 20 foot long sealed metal box is giving off a very high intensity gamma field. (1)  His problem now is how to determine what it is without opening the container. The possibilities are ominous. 

          Nuclear weapons are now designed to be small enough to fit inside a heavy back pack.  Such a device would take up only a small space mixed in with other elements of the cargo, listed on the manifest as “scrap metal…” Detonated on the dock, such a device could decimate a 10 mile radius of the city, and destroy all shipping activity for a period of five to ten years into the future. In addition to the large loss of life and physical wreckage, it would be an economic disaster.  But the device might also be an RDD (Radiological Dispersion Device) i.e. a “dirty bomb”. This is a conventional explosive mixed with a radioisotope. When such a device detonates the physical damage is relatively local but it distributes wind-born contamination over a large area, instilling panic and denying use of the area for long periods.

          In order to check his  body dose, Enzo removes a six-inch pencil-thin cylinder from his shirt pocket and holds it to his eye.  Reading through the lens in the end, he sees a small hairline scale which is recording his total whole body gamma dose since he zero’d it before leaving for work early this morning.  The device is called a Dosimeter, and every radiation worker the world around knows its life-saving capability.

          Enzo knows his time is very limited in this high radiation field, so the safest course is to move away quickly. The radiation intensity will decrease as the square of the distance he moves away.

          But the situation is life-threatening. He calls the facility supervisor, and they declare a radiation emergency. An urgent call is placed summoning two radiation inspectors from the Regional Environmental Agency. (1) They arrive within a few hours, meters in hand. Circling the container, they verify his readings and also note that the field intensity is not decreasing. This is a long-lived gamma source.  The question is what kind? A terrorist could booby-trap the doors to trigger a device when the container is opened. If the material is loose inside, opening the container could presumably spread the radioactive material across the entire area, exposing everyone to contamination, stopping all shipping, and causing an uncontrolled emergency.  The container must remain sealed.

          However, on the positive side, because the radiation level is so high this implies there is probably not a nuclear weapon inside. Radiation from an unexploded weapon is comprised of lower level Alpha and Beta particles with only smaller amounts of Gamma. Also, a nuclear bomb presence would imply a terrorist objective and it is likely that such a device would be carefully shielded so as to avoid discovery. But this does not rule out the presence of an RDD.

          Now a search is begun for the origin of the box’s contents.  Officials  find the  container was leased in April 2010 from Textainer (maker of the box) to a large Geneva based conglomerate, the Mediterranean Shipping Company.(1  Subsequently the box was “stuffed” in Saudi Arabia under auspices of a scrap dealer, Sun Metal Casting. The sealed container was then trucked to a dock, loaded aboard ship and finally transshipped onto a second vessel in a southern Italian seaport. The destination is a foundry in a small town north of Genoa.(1). Experts know that sealed containers can be broken into during transit.  The manifest shows no record of any radioactive contents.

          Three years earlier (2007) the United States Congress passed a bill requiring that Department of Homeland Security scan all cargo containers for radiation before they are permitted to enter the U.S.(1) Estimates vary on this number but it is possibly 50,000 containers each day entering our borders. Skeptics scoff politely at DHS’s claim that 99% of all containers entering each day are scanned for radiation.  DHS has now proposed an alternative plan of scanning before the containers arrive. If documentation indicates something suspicious, and if there is a U.S. Customs agent on duty at the foreign port, the container is scanned before setting sail to America.

          Now that the possibility of a Nuclear Bomb is eliminated, local officials are summoned, and in turn, call – who else? The Fire Department! As the level of officialdom increases, the amount of confusion also seems to increase. What should be done? With hand waving and excited discussion options are examined. Close the Port? Evacuate everyone, redirect the surrounding highway traffic, do nothing?  Or perhaps burn all the contents? It is politely pointed out that fire does not destroy radiation. All you get by incineration is very radioactive  smoke drifting uncontrolled up into the sky!

          Finally a crane is brought in to stack other containers around the box to block some of the emissions and keep others away to create an exclusion zone of safety. This gives the radiation experts a little breathing room to further probe this very mysterious source …

(to be continued …)


(1) “Mystery Box”, Andrew Curry, Wired Magazine, Nov. 2011.



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