The gripping part of his story was Cliff's description of RADACAD, which stands for Radiation Academy. So far Cliff and his colleagues have trained 3,500 U.S. and 1,600 foreign nationals from 56 nations. Those who sign up for the three-day course are primarily border guards, customs agents, port inspectors, and others paid to be perpetually paranoid about the potential ill intentions of those trying to enter their respective countries.
With a halting delivery liberally peppered with humor, Cliff, a veteran of the counter-WMD culture, talked about lots of fascinating detection technologies, among them a bevy of “portal monitors” designed to scan cars, trucks, trains, planes, and sea vessels for the "hi theres" of radioactive isotopes--gamma rays and/or neutrons. He also described X-ray backscatter systems that have revealed secret compartments in truck trailers that sometimes conceal people trying cross borders illegally. He talked about the turnkey GR-135 handheld radiation detectors that agents and inspectors use to determine what specific radioactive isotope might be present in a suspect shipment.
Quite often, when one of these monitors or gadgets sounds a signal, Cliff noted, it’s because an occupant of the vehicle recently had a thallium-201-based stress test and the radioactive isotope hasn’t yet cleared the person’s system. Or there might be a shipment of kitty litter made with clays rife with natural radioactivity. Empty propane tanks also have a knack for setting off alarms.
Amid the majority of false positives, there have also been some real interdiction moments. Among the few that Cliff briefly described was one in Romania in 1999 in which a guy who already had driven his car through several border crossings was caught with 4 g of weapons-grade uranium hidden in a lead “pig” the size of medicine vial. In a 1995 case, agents arrested three men in New York who were trying to smuggle 7 tons of zirconium (two of them in Cyprus) into Iraq where it presumably would have been useful for a nuclear weapons program.
All is not Sturm und Drang among the WMD crowd. During the talk, with the help of other symposium participants, everyone in attendance received a set of RADACAD playing cards. The back of each card sports a picture of what appears to be a nuclear-explosion-triggered fireball that will grow into a mushroom cloud. The face of each card provides a teaching moment. The four of diamonds, for example, lists eight radioactive isotopes used in industry that are of the greatest concern when it comes to dirty bombs. The joker cards show a cartoon character clad in a hazmat suit as he holds out what appears to be a tray bearing a picture of a nuclear explosion bomb, sort of like an offering of an hors d’oeuvres.
That’s not all the audience members received. They also walked away with a heavily laminated page rich with information about the dose ranges of ionizing radiation from all kinds of sources and situations—for example, medical x-rays, radiotherapy, solar flares, space missions, and round-trip international flights. You can learn nice details from the place mat, such as the way you will suffer “cerebral/vascular breakdown” if you take on an acute whole body exposure of 10,000 rem. "Nice for a picnic," Cliff said of the place mat.
When Cliff finished his talk, he rolled the soundtrack to Mission Impossible.
If you are looking for a light moment at an ACS national meeting, you wouldn’t first think of finding it in a talk titled “Weapons of Mass Destruction Counterproliferation: Interdict/RADACAD training.” But program manager William C. Cliff of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Wash., delivered a combo of deadly serious and seriously entertaining material to the small audience that gathered to hear him first thing in the morning this past Monday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. And everyone walked away with a veritable WMD goodie bag.