Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on March 17 that Customs and Border Protection agents were advised the week of March 14 to pay particular attention to screening cargo arrivals from Japan for radiation because of the damaged nuclear reactors there.

Customs and Border Protection officials in charge of the Port of Baltimore told Government Security News on a March 16 tour of the facility that radiation detectors at the gates of the port would be able to detect even trace radiation from any cargo arriving from Japan. CBP agents at the port said they routinely get radiation alarms from cargo arriving from all points on the globe, but it is harmless and naturally-occurring. Detectors are sensitive enough to pick up on even tiny amounts of radioactivity, they said. Cruise ship passengers can also set off radiation detectors if they have undergone certain medical procedures that involve radiation, they added.

News reports said CBP agents have reported radiation detected from some cargo arriving from Japan at several airports, including Chicago, Dallas and Seattle. Radiation has not been detected in passengers or luggage, however. None of the reported incidents involved dangerous or harmful amounts of radiation.

Napolitano said on March 17 that “we do have passengers and cargo arriving from Japan. And so, in an exercise of caution and just to make sure that everyone remains safe, we are doing screening of passengers and/or cargo if there happens to be even a blip in terms of radiation. We have seen no radiation, by the way, even on cargo or passengers that comes close to reaching a harmful level,” she said.

“There is screening going on and it occurs in a variety of different ways. It depends on whether you’re talking about passengers or cargo, where it’s departing from,” she said. “We have been working again with CBP, TSA and also HHS, FDA. There are a number of federal departments that are involved to make sure that the American people are safe, even as our number one priority, by the way, is assistance to Japan,” she said.

Every container leaving the seaport in Baltimore, Port Director Ricardo Scheller told Government Security News on March 16, must pass through sets of radiation detection portals before they leave the facility. Containers that receive positive readings are sent through a second more meticulous search by agents with hand-held radiation detectors. The agents can reject a container’s entry into the U.S. if levels are too high.

CBP agents working the radiation detectors at the Baltimore port said they routinely get radiation alarms on cargo and passengers from cruise ships. They said roughly 30-40 of 1,500 cargo containers they screen at a given time set off radiation alarms. However, the radiation is harmless. It occurs naturally in some substances in levels that can affect the sensors at the port. Ceramic tile and even bananas — because of their high Potassium content — regularly set off radiation detectors, said CBP agents.