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Nuclear Scanning Catches a Radioactive Cat On I-5 594

Jeff recommends Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat's story from a community meeting with Northwest border control agents. Seems their monitoring for dirty bombs from the median of Interstate 5 caught a car transporting a radioactive cat. "It turns out the feds have been monitoring Interstate 5 for nuclear 'dirty bombs.' They do it with radiation detectors so sensitive it led to the following incident. 'Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour... Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car]. The agent raced after the car, pulling it over not far from the monitoring spot.' Did he find a nuke? 'Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier.'"
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Nuclear Scanning Catches a Radioactive Cat On I-5

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  • Ha, ha (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bruce_the_loon ( 856617 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:14AM (#22842866) Homepage
    Now, how do you explain that you've just had radiation treatment to the mindless TSA buffoon who's found you're radioactive?
  • Proper investigation (Score:2, Interesting)

    by fastest fascist ( 1086001 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:19AM (#22842890)
    I assume they promptly cut the cat open - it could, after all, have been transporting fissile material in it's body. You never know with those feline terrorists.
  • So let's say... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ForestGrump ( 644805 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:30AM (#22842936) Homepage Journal
    1. I'm remodeling my house. I go down to Home Despot/Slowes and buy a dozen smoke detectors. Would I get pulled over for being a suspected terrorist?

    2. I'm a cancer patient undergoing radiation therapy. What can be done to prevent the horror of being pulled over by the KGB? Would it be reasonable to issue "radiology patient" tags, like they issue handicapped tags for the handicapped?

    3. What is the false positive rate of such monitoring? Here, we have a cute example of a sick cat setting off a false positive. What about other incidents like this that fail to get into the newspaper?

  • by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:34AM (#22842958)
    Of course, it's not serious journalism to simply quote from a random funny story tossed out in an otherwise dull talk. Good speakers often have a collection of slightly oddball fake stories to put the audience at ease. Journalism means actually chasing up the story, interviewing the supposed cat's owner and the agent. If they actually exist, that is.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @04:47AM (#22843022)
    We should all start carrying around smoke detectors to drive these people nuts :)

    2 can play games.
  • by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:01AM (#22843070) Homepage
    I remember reading something about them discovering a truck loaded with contaminated steel at the gate of some federal facility. Sometimes radiation sources, like cobalt-60, get mixed in with scrap metal that is going to be recycled. The steel plants are scared to death that they will accidentally melt down a load of scrap that contains a radiation source, resulting in a lot of spoiled steel and a huge decontamination bill. They have their own radiation detectors to check incoming material.
  • Let's say, then: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Wilson_6500 ( 896824 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:04AM (#22843078)
    1) Depends on the design of the detector. There's no chance the alpha particles from the Am-241 will be detected, as the cardboard box the smoke alarms are in will stop those, but the photons might be. The cat's scan residue (rimshot, please, along with everyone else in this discussion--but I would guess it's Tc-99 residue from a Tc-99m scan) was picked up by this detector system, so assumedly the Am-241 gammas might as well. That said, I don't know what activity is usually used smoke detectors (and I'm too lazy to look it up), or what activity is usually administered to cats during vet. nuclear med. procedures; questions like these are ones of quantity. You might well be stopped. From their perspective, you might well be buying twelve Am-241 sources to line the casing of a bomb.

    2) I was under the impression that oncologists were in the habit of doing just that--giving "doctor's notes" to patients with outpatient implanted brachytherapy seeds or devices. Being treated with a linear accelerator would not be likely to leave a perceptible amount of radiation in your body (photoneutrons from high energy linacs might cause some activation, but I don't think that it's generally a serious concern as far as setting off radiation alarms). Would it also bother you that you might well set off radiation alarms at nuclear power plants, if you happened to work at one, while being treated for your cancer?

    3) From a machine perspective, this was not a false positive. From a judicial/social standpoint, it was. I don't have much more to add beyond that.
  • This is Nothing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gambolt ( 1146363 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:39AM (#22843200)
    A lot of my family is from Oak Ridge TN, where the nuclear payload for the atomic bombs dropped in WWII was fabricated there is now a national lab.

    It's common knowledge that frogs are a problem for the feds around there. That's amphibians, not the French.

    Here's the problem. Frogs live in the ponds by the cooling towers. The frogs are radioactive. The frogs jump out on the road and get squished. There are then lots of radioactive tires rolling in and out of town. The multi-million doallar system purchased to keep people from sneaking radioactive material out of the area is therefore useless.

    Why the hell is the water in the coolant ponds radioactive? Isn't that a bad sign? Nobody cares, they are all used to it by now. The thing with the frogs sure is funny though.
  • Re:Hardly dangerous (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zymergy ( 803632 ) * on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:57AM (#22843242)
    I strongly disagree. The Chernobyl explosion and resulting contamination was not designed to disperse radioactive material. It did a fairly good job of doing that *anyway*. I agree that the predicted effects are fortunately much less (20 years later) than previously predicted, but it was nonetheless extremely effective at effecting FEAR and Terror into that portion of the World. If Terrorists with high explosives expertise also had access to MORE deadly radioactive substances than Chernobyl contained, that would be VERY SCARY.

    Terrorists are likely more interested the FEAR and the sensationalized terrifying concept of "Nuclear Fallout" rather than the actual scientific effects of such a dirty radiological High Explosive dispersion device (AKA Dirty Bomb).
    Terrorists may actually target key water and food supplies or river systems with radiological explosive dispersion devices.

    Any primary "Dirty Bomb" Victims that inhale, eat, drink, or consume into their bodies ANY energetically decaying radioisotopes (especially ones with relatively short half-lives) will have an *almost certain chance* of developing lung and/or bone cancers.
    Plutonium-238, curium-244, strontium-90, polonium-210, promethium-147, cesium-137, cerium-144, ruthenium-106, cobalt-60, curium-242, and thulium isotopes all can produce oncogenic, teratogenic, and mutagenic effects on the human body (especially if ingested or inhaled). This happens if the initial exposure does not kill the primary victims.

    In any case, it is very very unlikely that a citizen jury of peers would consider the passive monitoring of specific "hot" radioisotopes by US authorities to be a violation of the 4th Amendment's "unreasonable searches and seizures".
    NOBODY should have any of the above in their possession unless they are professionals and they would have clearly marked DOT placards on their commercial vehicles as well as DOT, NRC (and probably DOE) approved possession and transportation paperwork and approved containment vessels. []
    Also, they would have to follow controlled HC (Hazardous Cargo) approved routes within the US highway system. []

    I agree that it is interesting some animal and human cancer patients (and other radiologically medicated persons) have been flagged "hot" by roadside sensors and detained by authorities. It is likely that those same sensors can determine the quantity and difference between the americium-241 (one gram is enough for 5000 smoke detectors) from the other more dangerous materials no civilian should never have. []

    I am a US citizen, and I DO feel better knowing that these things ARE being actively screened for by our government. It would be terribly irresponsible for our government to NOT look for radioactive substances if technology would allow it to conducted as unobtrusively as it is from the side of a PUBLIC highway or port of entry. Americans don't have a right to own dangerous radioactive components.

    OTOH, if they decide to screen for GUNS in the US... that's a Second Amendment right we DO have... and whole other issue.
  • by G-funk ( 22712 ) <> on Monday March 24, 2008 @05:59AM (#22843244) Homepage Journal
    I'm afraid you're not maintaining the correct level of obed^H^H^H^H fear, citizen. Please come with me.
  • by MichaelCrawford ( 610140 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:00AM (#22843246) Homepage Journal
    They would monitor for leaks by collecting biological samples, oxidizing them down to ash, then mixing the ash in liquid scintillator then counting the rate of flashes in the fluid.

    She said all the pine needles in the woods near Oak Ridge are highly radioactive.

    She also monitored the lobsters caught in the Pacific next to the San Onofre plant near San Diego. Once they sent up extra lobsters: some to assay, and some to eat!

  • by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @06:13AM (#22843284) Homepage Journal
    If someone ever sets off a radiological bomb, the first thing I'm doing is taking out a loan to buy the land where it happens, because the value over the following decade is going to be tremendous. I'll even pay to throw in radiation detectors just to put people at ease.

    There are reasons to do some scanning for nuclear material, but if a few stray particles from a medical procedure is going to be enough to stop someone, there needs to be some decisions made on the sensitivity of the scanner.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:06AM (#22843458)
    If I ran a rich and powerful investigative agency but didn't have the resources to search every vehicle I would plant a plausible story in the news which implied that my department did in fact have devices so sensitive that we could detect hidden contraband, from a distance, with ease.

    That way even if the bad people had the stuff, they would think twice before transporting it. If they believed the story, that would be almost as disruptive to the bad people as if we actually had such a device.

    Maybe such a device exists, but could some knowledgeable person here explain if it is possible, instead of everyone just accepting the story at face value.
  • by Harmonious Botch ( 921977 ) * on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:06AM (#22843460) Homepage Journal

    So then, why haven't a human been caught in this net before?
    A human has. Or, at least, has been caught in something similar.
    A friend of mine was undergoing medical tests last year and he was stopped at the entrance to the San Diego city dump when getting rid of some trash. Not freeway speeds, of course, but he was in a moving, closed vehicle. Apparently people dump radioactive stuff.
  • Insightful?? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by adkeswani ( 1261278 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:19AM (#22843498)
    I check the comments expecting to see a series of Score:5 Funny.

    Instead, I find that most comments are Insightful and Informative.

    Come on people, a RADIOACTIVE CAT!

    Oh well, I guess this may be given an Insightful too...

  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:5, Interesting)

    by budgenator ( 254554 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:19AM (#22843500) Journal
    When I had a cardiac stress stress test there was a sign that informed patients that cross the boarder would trigger radiation detectors for at least three days. I work in a dental office and we are the only office that accepts the DHS's dental plan so we have many patients that are Customs Agents, he told me it took the Canadians 3 days to get their trash cleaned up enough to get it across the boarder without triggering the detectors.
  • by budgenator ( 254554 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:29AM (#22843538) Journal
    "Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour," Giuliano told the crowd. "Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car]."

    That is the impressive part, they didn't have to "cut" open the cat because they knew what they were looking for inside a car passing at 70MPH; all they needed to know is how much and in what form. A therapeutic amount in a cat is no problem isn't a problem, half a Kg for a car bomb is a problem. Another interesting point is while he didn't actually say it, it sounds like these things are quite portable and was contained in the vehicle.
  • Re:LOL @ Privacy Tag (Score:5, Interesting)

    by budgenator ( 254554 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:35AM (#22843568) Journal
    The are all the time, I had a stress test and the office told me that crossing the boarder would trigger the alarm for at least three days and that they had Dr's statements for Customs available for the asking. Customs turn back trash trucks at the boarder for radiation all the time now, you'd be amazed at how much nuclear waste Hospitals used to dump into our landfills unnoticed.
  • by SharpFang ( 651121 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:41AM (#22843584) Homepage Journal
    Imagine a hidden compartment at the end of a container.
    An 18-wheeler truck would hardly feel it. A meter at the end, a fake wall hiding the content, pretty hard to spot.

    A different hideout: in Poland, the police found drugs smuggled that way but only thanks to a tip they got.
    A transformer (no, not the robot. A voltage changing device), and hide the material in the core. You can't take it apart without damaging it without unwinding a few miles of wire off the coil. In Poland, these were electric welding machines, each housing a few pounds of cocaine right inside the hollowed-out transformer core. If you want nuclear materials transported, you can get an industrial size transformer, the size of a small house. It can't be checked without being damaged beyond repair, its composition is mostly densely wound copper wire and closely laid steel plates (5 tons of lead wouldn't make a difference, plus the steel and copper mean a good shield already) and inside of the core is spacious enough to host a quite large nuke, not just a dirty bomb.
  • So stupid... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by flajann ( 658201 ) <[ed.xmg] [ta] [llehctim.derf]> on Monday March 24, 2008 @07:49AM (#22843622) Homepage Journal
    A radioactive cat that just underwent cancer treatment? A cat is not a radiological bomb. Obviously, their detectors are way too sensitive.

    But more importantly, this is an innocent person that was harassed by the Homeland Insecurity types over something he'd done legitimately. What a waste of time and effort.

    If someone really does have a radiological weapon, all he has to do now is shield it in layers of lead to escape detection -- or have a radiological cat as a decoy.

    I suppose they'll harass people who just underwent cancer treatment as well. Wow. I feel so secure now.

    Of course, chemical-based bombs can do a lot of damage as well, but obviously this detector won't pick that up. What a waste of taxpayer's dollars.

    Low-tech can always thwart high-tech, anytime. The would-be terrorist on a shoestring budget can always find a low-tech way to circumvent these million-dollar high tech measures. Meanwhile, some egg-heads in government revel in the false sense of security they now have.

    Of course, it begs to reason how much of a real "treat" of "terrorism" there really is. Oh, but the big government contractors are loving the windfall from the paranoia. Well, that's the US for ya. Fear for Profit! Yeah, the American Way.

  • Re:So let's say... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by asuffield ( 111848 ) <> on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:37AM (#22843906)

    Because every person who is caught (whether or not convicted,) automagically becomes innocent on Slashdot and other places.

    Other places like, for example, the law. Innocent until proven guilty. There's nothing magic about it.

    You're saying you haven't heard stories in the past seven years about people or groups of people being arrested/questioned/deported/accused for planning some sort of terrorist crime?

    And none of them have been convicted, which means they're all still innocent. I've checked. Have you?
  • Re:LOL @ Privacy Tag (Score:5, Interesting)

    by IndustrialComplex ( 975015 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @08:54AM (#22844018)
    That isn't necessarily true. I was injected with a radioactive isotope to check for a fractured sternum. The idea was that if there was damage, the radiation would be concentrated on a fracture as the body attempts to repair it.

    The hospital was busy, and had no open waiting rooms while I waited for the results. They sat me down in a side room. Every couple of minutes a tech came in and was checking on a piece of equipment. He ended up with this very puzzled expression on his face. Left and came back a few times.

    Eventually it looked as if a lightbulb had lit in his mind and he glanced at the machine, then at me, then back at the machine. Eventually he asked me 'So, let me guess, you are radioactive?' With a sheepish grin I replied what type of test I was in there for and that they had placed me in the room. Apparantly he had been trying to test some type of radioactive material as well and his numbers were 100x larger than what he had been expecting. The radiation I was emitting threw off his numbers to an extreme degree from across the room.

    I drove home a few minutes after that and had there been a radiation detector on the side of the road I'm confident that I would have set it off as well.
  • Happens all the time (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dj245 ( 732906 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:18AM (#22844180) Homepage
    My father is an immigration inspector on the Canadian border. Apparently this is not uncommon and people are usually surprised when he asks them if they have had any recent medical tests. The only news here is that it was a cat this time.

    The detectors are very sensitive. Aparently the steel in many shipping containers built in China sets it off because the chinese are recycling a lot of the steel that was in now-decommissioned nuclear reactors.
  • Re:LOL @ Privacy Tag (Score:4, Interesting)

    by prisoner-of-enigma ( 535770 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:30AM (#22844252) Homepage
    My cat just received treatment for a benign thyroid tumor causing hyperthyroidism. It cost a bloody fortune (US$1,100) but it was either that or medicate him twice a day for the rest of his life (euthanasia was not open to consideration). The clinic was RadioCat [] in Marietta, GA. Take a look at their logo and tell me if it doesn't bring back memories of Napster's...but I digress.

    The clinic kept him for three days after the treatment, both to observe and to let some of the radioactivity die down. After he came home, we had to keep him separate from our other cats (we have five total). We were cautioned not to dispose of his litter in the trash; it should be flushed. The clinic said the county dumps have radiological sensors that scan everything going into the dump, and the litter would definitely set off the sensors. It would cause an investigation that would have the trash company trace back where that particular trash truck picked up garbage from and could cause a lot of unneeded trouble. We were advised not to hold the cat for more than 20-30 minutes per day and to wash our hands thoroughly after any contact with the cat.

    I knew our pet would be "hot" when he came home, but I had no idea the cat could set off a roadside sensor. Either this fellow didn't let the lab keep the cat for the required 3-4 days before transporting him or the sensor was amazingly sensitive. If so, I'm actually quite happy about it. If somebody is transporting a radioactive cat is found, they're detected, nobody gets their fur in a fluff, and everybody goes their way. If somebody is transporting a dirty bomb or components thereof, they're detected and law enforcement deals with it. I see nothing here to complain about.
  • by mattt79 ( 1005999 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:54AM (#22844460)
    Something similar happened to me about ten years ago. My toddler aged daughter was undergoing nuclear scans to track her cancer treatments, and I was told that for the next 48 hours I should wear gloves when changing her diapers. A week later I get a call from some "government agency" asking why my garbage was emitting radioactivity! After I explained about the underlying medical issues, (including the fact that I-131 has a half-life of a couple days) there was no further problem.

    But here's the kicker, since I use a community dumpster, the only way the could identify me was to get the information from mail in my (presumably radioactive) trash.

    I learned two things from the encounter,

    1 - I need to get a shredder.

    2 - That someone has what may be the worst job in the world... radioactive dumpster diving.
  • Re:LOL @ Privacy Tag (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <tms AT infamous DOT net> on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:04AM (#22844546) Homepage

    Emitting nuclear radiation is the equivilent of shouting "hey, here, look in my vehicle. I've got something NUCLEAR!"

    The problem, as the other posts in this thread show, is that having something NUCLEAR! is not all that unusual, and usually quite benign. It's not just radiation therapy patients - these radiation detectors get set off by some foods (bananas, cocoa powder, Brazil nuts) camping equipment (lanterns, propane), and stone and clay products (granite, kitty litter, pottery) [].

    When you get that many false positives, your test is useless. It's just more security theater. You need to test not just for the presence of nuclear radiation, but to set an appropriate threshold.

    I suppose that the calculation of such a threshold with a formula involving the square of the distance to the object being tested is too complicated for the majority of people responsible for our security. And that, friends, is not reassuring.

  • Re:Ha, ha (Score:4, Interesting)

    by stubob ( 204064 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:22AM (#22844714) Homepage
    So the new order is: cat box, soap box, ballot box, jury box, ammo box?
  • Dirty bombs? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:01AM (#22845058)

    I have yet to see any evidence at all that a "dirty bomb" is anything more than a crazy nightmare cooked up by an American paranoid whackjob. Do we really think "the terrorists" are going to use something like that? It seems like a huge amount of effort, with a huge risk of detection, for an effect that could just as easily be achieved in other ways. See for instance, 9/11.

  • by Zero__Kelvin ( 151819 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @01:32PM (#22847058) Homepage

    "Why should I explain the details of my cancer treatment to some TSA agent? My medical history is private and should be protected by law from unnecessary disclosure."
    Your right to privacy is protected! You also have the right to be apprehended and held incommunicado indefinitely, which has been your right for some time now [doesn't ANYONE read the .sigs anymore?]. Anything you don't say can and will be used against you. It's the new American way.

    When U.S. citizens were children, most didn't learn their civics lessons. They didn't need to because they were going to be Pro Football or Baseball players, or actresses, or pick any other excuse you would like. They don't bat an eyelash now when they hear "if you have nothing to hide" or "we are benevolent protectors" (except to wonder what the word benevolent means.) Henry David Thoreau said that people will get exactly the kind of government they deserve, and that is indeed what the U.S. citizens have received.
  • by SchmellsAngel ( 1020963 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @01:42PM (#22847206)
    Been happening since we started putting radiation detectors on roads. Here's a story from 1984 about an incident that sickened a Juarez neighborhood, yet amazingly killed nobody: []
    "When a delivery truck took a wrong turn near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on Jan. 17, a radiation alarm was tripped."
  • Happens all the time (Score:2, Interesting)

    by NuclearGator ( 1261456 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @01:49PM (#22847342)
    Patients are given paperwork to prove that they have had nuclear medicine tests (what isotope and how much activity.) Nuclear power plant workers set off the detectors when they go back to work after Tl/Tc99m stress tests all the time down here in Fl. Longer lived isotopes like I131 for thyroid cancer ablation lasts quite a long time in the body (long biological half life with an 8 day half life.) All the major highways into NYC have detectors. Old news people...
  • by PNutts ( 199112 ) on Monday March 24, 2008 @03:04PM (#22848670)
    I call bullshit. Your arguments make no sense. I'll take the risk that you are a humanitarian and ask you anyway how much of your time or disposible income have you spent on the 40 million/hundreds of millions of people you mentioned? While you are pointing fingers, don't forget to look at the Arab Emirates to see how much of their money is flowing to the needy. You've choosen to overlook the American billionaires (and our new overlords American Idol) who are making a difference around the world with a good chunk of their fortunes. I also see American doctors and even the American military travel to areas of need to provide food, water, clothing, and medicine. Does America have problems? Sure. Who doesn't? We have more than some, less than others. Some days I think we should just turn out the lights. It riles me to see kids in Hummers dropped off at schools that struggle to stay open. But if you don't want the aide we provide to the rest of the world then I would be glad to have America spend it only at home. That includes the money spent on wars nobody wanted and we didn't need. All we need is a revolution to become socialists, but good luck with that.

    My buddy is a school teacher who can't afford a car with air conditioning, yet spent almost US$10,000 to try and save his sick dog. The dog died and it took him almost 10 years to pay it back. So don't piss on everyone when there are decent people left.

    Also, since you posted AC at 3am my time I don't know if you posted in the middle of the night or from work in some other time zone. If you posted from home, how can you justify having a computer and Internet connectivity when there are so many needy people out there? If you posted from work, how can you be so selfish as to have a job when there are so many needy people out there? I get so sick of the "won't somebody think of the children" mentality. Sheesh.

System checkpoint complete.