On 19 March 2018 there was a flurry of media activity when Turkish media reported a possible incident of smuggling of radioactive material. It was reported that police had seized 1.4 kilogrammes (3lb) of radioactive material after searching a car during an anti-smuggling operation in the Pursaklar suburb of Ankara. The substance was identified in the report as californium, a highly radioactive (it is a neutron emitter) element, which is manufactured in very small quantities in only two labs in the world.
The report that such a large amount of californium was found made us doubt this is a credible threat (the two sites producing it only make 0.25 grams and 0.025 grams of californium-252 per year). Only small quantities of this element have been made since its discovery in 1950. It is also highly radioactive and would have posed a threat to life just sitting in the back of a car.
It came as no surprise to us when The Daily Sabah published a story saying that the substance is NOT californium, it isn’t even radioactive.
But there are some interesting issues that the incident highlights.
Why did anyone think it was radioactive in the first place? Were the authorities using personal radiation detectors (PRDs) that identify radiation levels but cannot tell the difference between radioactive elements?
It was a tip-off that led the police to the car which, if the radioactive source had been real, would already have harmed citizens in the vicinity. This shows the importance of having mobile radiation detection operating across a city, as a matter of public safety. If this is done the natural radiation levels of the location can be mapped and any increase can be seen and investigated immediately.
Why was the source identified as californium? If a detector was used to identify the isotope then it could be that it was not calibrated correctly or the reading was misunderstood (understandable in a high-stress situation).
The Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK) found the material to be non-radioactive, but not before the story had been picked up by media around the world.
This incident shows the importance of fast identification of radioactive material at the scene, to do that you need detectors that the average users can understand, are accurate and can identify the radioactive material. You must also be able to detect neutrons – anyone carrying radioactive substance will have to shield it, but it is almost impossible to shield for neutrons.
We are glad that this has turned out to be a false alarm, it must have been a tense time for the authorities at the scene and anyone living in the area.