On the lookout for the invisible: How NEA safeguards against radiation risk
SINGAPORE: From oil refineries to petrochemical plants, veterinary clinics and land checkpoints, National Environment Agency (NEA) officer Parthiban Balachandran’s job takes him around the whole of Singapore.
A technical supervisor with NEA’s radiation protection and nuclear science department, Mr Parthiban is on the lookout for the invisible – radioactive sources and any unintended exposure to radiation that could put workers and the public at risk.
The work involves regulating the possession, use and sale of ionising radiation sources. Along with fellow officers from the Ionising Radiation Control Section, Mr Parthiban takes part in regular inspections to ensure that those who possess such sources comply with Singapore’s regulatory requirements.
In Singapore, only those with the necessary qualifications and knowledge in radiation safety are authorised to operate irradiating apparatus and radioactive materials.
Mr Parthiban’s day usually begins with a review of a list of inspection sites and relevant licences. These licences are issued by NEA for the import, export, sale, dealing in, possession and use of radioactive materials and irradiating apparatus, as well as the transport of radioactive materials.
“As part of my responsibilities, I conduct site inspections prior to the issuance of licences to verify that the details of the irradiating apparatus or radioactive material … quantity, serial number, type of radioactive material, provided by the applicant are accurate,” he said.
Mr Parthiban will check the inventory of radioactive materials and make sure that requirements are met.
“For example, my check entails sighting of appropriate labels and signage, ensuring storage areas are secured and radiation levels in areas accessible to the public are within permissible limits,” he added.
“I also review the facility’s operating procedures to assess whether safety measures to protect the workers and members of the public are adequate and provide guidance to applicants and licensees on how to enhance the procedures for greater safety.”
Mr Parthiban’s inspection reports will provide a “clear indication” of where the radiation sources are, and once the report is approved, the licence will be issued.
A SLEEPY SURPRISE
In addition to routine checks, Mr Parthiban and his team are sometimes mobilised to Singapore’s various checkpoints when there are shipments suspected of containing undeclared radioactive material.
This happens between two and three times a year.
“ICA (Immigration and Checkpoints Authority officers) will provide information on the flagged shipment to NEA and locations within the containers which have elevated radiation levels. The responding NEA officer will review the shipping documents, such as the bill of loading, invoice, packing list, cargo clearance permit … and verify the details, and proceed to survey the container and identify the suspected radionuclide,” he explained.
First, Mr Parthiban conducts an initial check with a radiation survey meter to assess radiation levels.
A more sophisticated instrument called an identifier is then used to identify the radioisotope. The identifier, with its library of radionuclides, can distinguish the different radioisotopes after a spectroscopic analysis.
“If necessary, the container will be unpacked to isolate the suspected item. If it is a controlled item, NEA will inform the importer on the licensing requirements and take enforcement action if necessary,” he added.
Mr Parthiban recalled coming across a container of pillows with elevated levels of radiation readings.
“Upon further investigation, we discovered that the pillows contained tourmaline – a mineral that contains a minute amount of naturally occurring radionuclides,” he recalled. “Low levels of radiation can be found everywhere in nature, including the soil, ground and water. In bulk, products containing such materials may cause radiation readings to be elevated.”
When he speaks to acquaintances about his job, Mr Parthiban is sometimes met with quizzical looks.
“The biggest misconception is they don’t know that people are doing this, what I’m doing … they don’t know there is such a role. But that is our role, we have been doing it for a while,” he said.
“They tell me: ‘Why are you doing this?’ … In my opinion, they get confused about how much damage it’s going to do to you. But I always think about this when I do my work – it’s like fire. We can cook food with fire, you can burn ourselves with fire. And if you look at radiation, it is the same concept … There are good uses for radiation, it depends on which perspective you want to see it.”
It is important to understand that radiation can be found all around us, and in small doses, there is nothing to fear, stressed Mr Parthiban.
“What most people do not know is that we are constantly exposed to naturally occurring sources of background radiation. Aside from cosmic radiation, from the sun, for example, our earth’s crust contains radioactive minerals that emit low levels of radiation,” he explained.
“Even our own bodies contain naturally occurring radioactive elements. Therefore, anything made from natural materials from the earth crust may generally emit radiation.”
Common items that can contain radioactivity include commercial fertilisers – due to the presence of naturally occurring potassium-40 – large quantities of bananas, which are also rich in potassium, as well as large consignments of salt, he said.
“When we are looking at radioactivity, generally we have to make a caveat here, because it doesn’t mean (just because something is) radioactive, (it) means something very sinister,” he noted.
“People always have some misconceptions here and there because we read from the Internet … this is one of the things they shouldn’t be alarmed about,” added Mr Parthiban.
“In Singapore, we regulate radioactive materials and X-rays very clearly, anything (involving) ionising radiation in Singapore, we are regulating it. So, there’s no need to worry.”