The very real threat of radiation contamination has been felt the world over since the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima power plant. In July experts are predicting radiation levels from the disaster could double and with new headlines reporting high levels of radioactive cesium in cattle, airports are beginning to fully realise the risk and are stepping up efforts to ensure effective radiation detection and management.
The radiation threat exists in many different forms and fixed systems at airports to detect incoming radiation levels – whether from passengers or cargo – are going to become commonplace.
While detection systems do exist around the world today, a major criticism of existing radiation detection systems has been they are overly sensitive and cause too many false alarms. For example, cargo medical shipments can contain a low level of radiation.
In March 2011 two American Airlines planes arriving from Tokyo triggered the radiation detection alarms in Dallas and Chicago, but no threat existed. Passengers can also sometimes set off detection systems as a result of receiving medical treatment for illnesses, such as cancer.
One company that believes it has solved the problem of radiation detectors giving false alarms is Environics, a global provider of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) monitoring solutions. Having been very successful with its range of portable radiation detectors, following a three-year development programme the company will now see its new fixed system implemented into Helsinki-Vantaa Airport by the end of 2011.
The system includes server software, 30 RanidPORT portal monitors, a database, a data exchanger (for immediate action) and an integrated camera server for recording video data.
Frances Cook caught up with Ahti Luukkonen, VP of sales and marketing at Environics, to find out more about this system and how it will assist the airport with its radiation detection goals.
Frances Cook: Who did Environics work with to get this complex fixed radiation detection system developed?
Ahti Luukkonen: The Helsinki-Vantaa Airport radiation monitoring system is a joint project with Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Authority (STUK) and Finnish Custom. Our customer is STUK and the end-user of the system is Custom. Obviously STUK provides their experience and core competences for radiation monitoring in the country.
FC: Will the detection system monitor radiation in both passengers and cargo shipments?
AL: The detection system will be used to detect radiation threats for customers entering the country, including the hand luggage, and also cargo that is incoming as well as outgoing. For example, there is cargo coming from Russia by truck so the trucks are driving from Russia to Finland to Helsinki airport, so that cargo is checked because it's coming from outside.
FC: What makes your system so unique?
AL: The system is unique in Europe because it has been designed to avoid so-called false positive alarms that can occur so frequently when scanning for radiation in airports.
For example, if you've had cancer treatment in a hospital you could be radiating because of that. We can identify if the level of radiation is dangerous or not dangerous – it identifies different levels as a result of the sensors we are using and the algorithms we have developed, which are very sophisticated.
My understanding is they had this kind of monitoring system in Austria but they stopped using it because it caused so many false positive alarms. I think 20 out of 10,000 people get cancer treatment and are radiating, so if you imagine the number of people going through airports you can imagine the hundreds of thousands that have had cancer treatment.
FC: What other aspects of your monitoring system make it effective?
AL: Another unique aspect of the system is that it provides online information to experts, so as soon as there is an alarm the system will send a message to experts at the local authorities. They can decide if it is something to follow up or something the authorities in the airport should stop.
FC: How long has it taken and how much has it cost to develop this system?
AL: We have been developing this system for two to three years in good collaboration with Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Authorities, STUK. Actually we bought the product rights for this software from STUK.
The value of the project, which was open public procurement and part of a tender procedure, is €650,000. That figure is what the tendering process costs: the software and hardware. It is the cost of the basic system.
FC: When is it going to be up and running in Helsinki-Vantaa Airport?
AL: We'll start the release in September, when everything will hopefully be finalized, and we will start integration in October; then we'll be running a trial and it should be in operation by the end of this year.
FC: Has the company produced a system on this scale before and how could it be developed further?
AL: This is the first time the company has developed a big radiation monitoring system like this for installation in an airport. We have experience with the mobile radiation detention and identification system RanidPro200, which is used by field operating authorities. RanidPro200 uses the same software as the mobile system, which provided a lot of ground work for this fixed system.
The Helsinki-Vantaa radiation monitoring system can be easily expanded to cover Environics' fixed chemical and biological detectors thanks to our versatile EnviScreen on-line monitoring software. The system is also fully scaleable from small systems up to a nationwide monitoring system.