IAEA’s Mobile App helps Sri Lanka to fight smuggling of radioactive materials

Sri Lanka’s fight against the smuggling of radioactive materials has got a shot in the arm with the Tool for Radiation Alarm and Commodity Evaluation (TRACE) – a mobile app developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). TRACE has been helping Sri Lankan officials in detecting low quantity of radioactive materials without hampering maritime trade.

The island country of Sri Lanka has an important geo-strategic location in the Indian Ocean Region as it sits on the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) connecting east to the west. Its capital Colombo is a major port city, seeing millions of containers being transported in a year. Hence, it has been imperative to have sensitive system in place that can detect very small quantities of nuclear material. But sometimes the alarm also rings on small quantities of naturally occurring radioactive material that is present in commodities such as ceramics, fertilizer and soybeans. And this is where TRACE comes into picture by helping in resolving the ‘innocent’ alarms from the potential illegal movement of radioactive material.

“If there is radioactivity of any kind, it will be detected. The challenge we face is in determining whether the alarm that is triggered by the detected radiation is innocent or not. Unless we have quick access to information on why a shipment might have naturally occurring radioactive material present, such alarms can hamper trade by delaying shipment and interrupting normal operations at our port,” Jada Perera, Director of Sri Lanka Customs was quoted at the IAEA website.

The IAEA’s TRACE is an app for smart phones and was developed as part of a coordinated research project that involved experts from the IAEA and more than 20 countries, using information on commodities and isotopes collected by radiation portal monitors. It is based on the radiation signatures of the different cargo commodities. It helps the customs officials in determining whether a radiation alarm is consistent with what is declared to be in the container.

“For example, if the paperwork for a shipment says the cargo is ceramics, it means we should see tiny quantities of naturally occurring thorium when we scan the cargo with radiation detection equipment. If we see a Colbalt-60 spectrum, we know that a shipper is possibly declaring ceramic ware to smuggle a Cobalt-60 source. This cargo is then detained and taken to secondary inspection,” Perera elaborated.

Because each isotope has different radiological characteristics, attempts to hide smuggled radioactive material in a cargo containing naturally radioactive material is practically impossible, he added.

The mobile app has also reduced the time required to train officers to assess radiation alarms.