SCK•CEN launches live deployment of its measurement device for faster and more accurate radioactivity detection

As part of the nuclear emergency exercise carried through on Thursday 29 and Friday 30 October, the SCK•CEN detailed its teams of experts to measure radioactivity rapidly and accurately. Using an on-board measurement unit in a Ministry of Defence helicopter, SCK•CEN can take action to provide the authorities with crucial data in the event of a nuclear incident. This kind of expertise is highly sought after worldwide.

For the first time in a nuclear emergency exercise, SCK•CEN launched live aerial deployment of radioactivity measurement devices. "High detection sensitivity and short measurement times are essential for measuring huge areas of contamination", says SCK•CEN expert, Johan Paridaens. "The advantage of using the device in a helicopter is that it can scan a large area rapidly. Our detectors pick up enough statistical data to quantify contamination in only a few seconds". 

This technique, known as Aerial Gamma Spectrometry or AGS, is used when the situation has been stabilised, guaranteeing absolute safety for pilots and passengers overflying a contaminated area. This system is not only essential for measurements following a nuclear incident, but is also useful to measure radioactivity in the natural environment for a more accurate definition of historical contamination sites. 

On Friday 30 October, a Ministry of Defence helicopter with an on-board measurement device overflew a historical contamination site to test the system's sensitivity, and also the influence of flight altitude on results, which was considered one of the most complex factors when action was taken in the wake of the Fukushima incident. The measurements will now be contrasted with dispersion and dosage models at SCK•CEN labs to map contamination and exposure levels in the area concerned.

"Guaranteeing the safety of Belgian citizens is one of the main tasks of the Ministry of Defence", says Stéphane Roobroek, Chief of Helicopter Operations with the Belgian Air Force. "When the need arises, we immediately deploy all the material and human resources available to us. Our staff receive regular and special training to be ready to take direct action on the ground in the best possible conditions. Cooperation with SCK•CEN is essential in this case to develop measurement systems in the event of a nuclear incident. "

Expertise at the service of the authorities and the general public

After a nuclear incident, the amount of radioactivity over a large area must be determined as quickly as possible. After the Fukushima incident, the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre in Mol decided to step up research and make use of cutting-edge measuring equipment. Thanks to AGS equipment provided by Belgium's Federal Public Service Home Affairs (also to the Radioactive Elements Institute in Fleurus), SCK•CEN was able to fine-tune its procedures on the ground. "SCK•CEN now has some extremely high-performance teams and resources. Our experts can measure radioactivity in the air, in foodstuffs, in soil and in water", explains Frank Hardeman, Deputy Director General. 

Along with Belgium’s Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) and the Royal Meteorological Institute (RMI), SCK•CEN has also taken the initiative of launching a national data centre. The centre analyses data from the International Monitoring System (IMS) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), and acts as advisor to the Belgian authorities. "As a public utility foundation, SCK•CEN must maintain all the necessary expertise to assist the general public, the authorities and industry in Belgium and abroad during a nuclear incident", Frank Hardeman continues.
Aerial Gamma Spectrometry measurements
 AGS measurements 
© Bénédicte Maindiaux