TSA tests ferry radiation sniffer at Galveston

Published 10 March 2008

Tests began last Thursday; equipment was able to find small amounts placed in TSA vehicles; each sniffer costs $150,000, and are sensitive enough to detect the radiation in someone who has been injected with radioactive dye for a medical procedure two weeks after the injection

Equipment in two trailers at Galveston, Texas, last week sniffed out nuclear materials on cars and trucks boarding the Bolivar Ferry in the first field test of the device in a maritime setting, a DHS official said. The transportable radiation monitoring system, or TRMS, last Thursday began screening cars entering the ferry from Galveston Island for the first full day of an eight-day trial, said Capt. Jim Bamberger, Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) branch chief. Bamberger said the equipment stuffed in two trailers, each about the size of a horse trailer designed for carrying two horses, is being tested for the first time on vehicles boarding a vessel. Six TSA employees from Hobby Airport were trained on using the machine Wednesday.

On Thursday their training was tested by TSA vehicles carrying a small amount of radioactive material, he said. Screeners detected the material in test vehicles both times they went through, Bamberger said. The trailers are set up in the grass medians at the ferry entrance so that cars and trucks must pass between them. The system is passive, meaning it detects radiation without emitting signals or harmful rays. If radiation is detected, the car or truck is pulled over for an examination by two TSA employees, Bamberger said.

The TRMS experimental model, which costs about $150,000, is so sensitive that it can detect the radiation in someone who has been injected with radioactive dye for a medical procedure two weeks after the injection, Bamberger said. The radioactive material used in the test can be purchased in a hardware store, he said, noting that small amounts of radioactivity are emitted from household items like fire detectors. Houston Chronicle’s Harvey Rices writes that TRMS can also detect the non-nuclear potassium in bananas. The device would not detect a single banana, but would in a truckload. Testing and evaluation on the device probably will not be completed until the end of the year, TSA employees are being trained in its use in tests conducted across the country, Bamberger said. If TRMS is adopted, it probably will be moved randomly and used in places where there is a threat, he said. Having a pool of trained personnel will make it much easier to deploy, he said. Ferry Operations Manager William “Bill” Mallini said the ferry already has security measures in place, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mallini said he could not discuss details of the plan, but it included physical security, random screening of passengers and employee training.