A low-flying helicopter will be in the Oakland skies this week to measure natural radiation levels in the Bay Area. The flyover will document background radiation in San Francisco, Oakland and Pacifica as part of a joint research and development initiative for the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the National Nuclear Security Administration.
An official with the Department of Homeland Security said the measurements would be used for research and development of airborne radiation detector systems.
The purpose of taking such measurements is to create a baseline standard against which the agencies can compare radiation levels in case of a nuclear or radioactive threat, said Eric Norman, professor of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, who has been involved with past Department of Homeland Security projects. “We need to know a lot about the haystack to find the needle,” he said.
Norman said the Bay Area emphasis is part of a nationwide survey. Measurements were previously taken in New York, Seattle and parts of Washington D.C., according to officials with the National Nuclear Security Administration.
In total, the Bay Area’s flyover will cover 69 square miles, according to a press release from the National Nuclear Security Administration. The flights, which began on August 27, will continue through September 1.
Though the Oakland Police Department sent out information to neighborhood groups about the weeklong survey, emphasizing the helicopter’s daytime flights, the noise and close proximity of the aircraft surprised several Oakland residents.
Stacy Wilkinson, 33, was working from her home in North Rockridge when she heard the helicopter circling her neighborhood. The craft was so low she could see the pilot and a few faces in the back from her window, she said. Her first thought was that it was part of a police search for a suspect, but she checked Facebook and found out about the aerial survey. “If we do get helicopters, it’s incredibly rare,” she said of her neighborhood.
Other residents did not initially think the flyover was anything out of the ordinary, except that they noticed it during the early morning hours. “I’m used to so many helicopters that I was mildly irritated,” said North Oakland resident Cassia Leet, 42.
The practice of surveying an area for radioactive elements is not uncommon, Norman said. Last summer Norman and a group of his students undertook a similar project in which they measured the natural ground radiation at 50 locations around San Francisco. During the survey, the group found traces of naturally occurring radioactive elements in the soil, such as uranium, potassium and thorium, Norman said. These elements can be found throughout the Bay Area and are in such small traces that they are not health hazards, he said.
Oakland, San Francisco and Pacifica were chosen for this survey because of their varying topography, buildings and expected background radiation measurements, according to officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Oakland, in particular, was chosen because of its typical city environment and its proximity to a harbor.
The last time the San Francisco area was part of an aerial survey was in 1966, according to officials with the National Nuclear Security Administration.
This week’s helicopter is manned by a crew of four — two pilots from the National Nuclear Security Administration, an equipment operator and a scientist. The crew’s involvement with radiation assessment missions ranges from five to 30 years, according to officials with the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Norman said residents should not worry about the helicopter’s radioactive tracking mission, as the craft itself will not emit any particles. “It is simply sensing radiation that is coming up from the ground anyway,” he said. “That radiation is there all the time.”