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That low-flying helicopter over Oakland? It’s taking radiation levels

on August 29, 2012

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.”

Image: A Bell 412 helicopter that is being used to measure background radiation levels in the Bay Area this week. Photo courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration 


  1. Christopher Heredia on August 30, 2012 at 1:23 am


    Well now this makes total sense. Here I thought there was military training going on.

  2. Garrett on August 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    Hmm… is there a possibility that this could have prompted the fly-over as well?

  3. Frank Snapp on September 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Actually, the military has been conducting war games over Oakland–think preparations for a FEMA people moving event post the next “big-one” earthquake definitely coming; but the latest low flying Helicopters are not dual-prop Apaches as are used in the military’s war games. Instead these are supposedly about testing the “air” for radionuclide fallout. Not discussed? Concentrations are highest in soils, top few centimeters. The greatest danger is not from external exposure at all but from internalized exposure, a/k/a and the science of such is called dosimetry. Radionuclides thanks to the decay process are very diverse. It’s not just Cesium, Strontium, or even Plutonium (the deadliest); but several hundred long-lasting radionuclide (actinide) species among the thousands of possible, otherwise shorter lived fallout component species. Concentrations in soil, therefore food, all surface sourced drinking water, tend to increase, not decrease, in time even from a few weeks of fallout after an acute, or one-time event, which Fukushima is being portrayed as (in the past); but is actually worsening and ongoing. Don’t be fooled by any measurements coming from either the U.S. military or any university, such as U.C. Berkeley, enmeshed with the U.S. military, as the U.S. is the nation that profits most from nuclear weapons and nuclear power corporate interests.

    Solution? Some of you out there who are actually well off, and there are a lot of you in the Bay Area, better start buying radiation measurement equipment, only the most expensive works well and for real scientifically reproducable results purposes. The rich of the Bay Area also must fund reliable independent radiation research of soils and internal bioaccumulation with ecological trophic telescoping and then share this information with the wider community via widely read online zines like Oakland North and perhaps the Berkeley Daily Planet, among others.

  4. Frank Snapp, Guerrilla Gardener, North Oakland on September 11, 2012 at 6:49 am

    By FEMA “people moving event” think Katrina. Wonderful way to get rid of a heavy concentration of democratic voters (9th Ward was about 95% democratic, but no more), and remember that Halliburton was the first disaster capitalism parasite corp to swoop in and profiteer off the manufactured misery post Katrina in Louisiana.

  5. dino on November 2, 2012 at 7:24 am

    The new scientific paper, which will be published in November 1 edition of the journal Science of the Total Environment says that its research “clearly demonstrates how little dissipation [of radionuclides] occurred [between March 12 and 16] due to the nature of the rapid global air circulation system.”

    The massive release of anthropogenic – or non-naturally occurring radionuclides such as cesium 137 and cesium 134 – by the meltdowns and explosions that rocked Fukushima Daiichi occurred in the five days following the beginning of the accident, the report says.

    Simulations of potential dispersion of the radiation cloud conducted by Weather Online Website in the UK showed that air masses were eastwardly displaced from Fukushima after the accident, which put it on a collision course with the US West Coast.

    The report goes on to say that “the Fukushima radioactive plume contaminated the entire Northern Hemisphere during a relatively short period of time” after the March 11, 2011 ten-meter tsunami emanating from a 9.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed Fukushima Daiichi’s primary and backup coolant systems.

    New West Coast helicopter patrols raise alarm

    News reports from the US west coast throughout August indicated that government helicopter were seen flying at low altitudes in cities such as Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle measuring radioactivity in the air, the San Francisco Examiner and MSNBC reported.

    The choppers were contracted to measure radiation along the West Coast by the US Department of Homeland Security, which has not released any data about its findings, said the Examiner.

    The department has maintained a position that radiation reaching the US West Coast after the Fukushima disaster was insignificant.

    ‘Tokyo levels’ of hot particles in Seattle

    But nuclear physicist Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer of energy consulting company Fairewinds Associates and a former nuclear power industry executive, disagreed.

    “During April, the people in Seattle could have just as easily been in Tokyo for the amount of hot particles that were there,” he told Washingtonblog, referring to microscopic pieces of airborne radioactive material.

    Independent reports on radiation dispersion from the worldwide radiation sensor stations operated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization CTBTO, though not as dire as Gundersen’s asserting, confirm enormous and widespread releases of cesium-137, cesium-135 and iodine-131.

    “Nine days after the accident, the radioactive cloud had crossed Northern America,” reported the CTBTO. “Three days later when a station in Iceland picked up radioactive materials, it was clear that the cloud had reached Europe.”

    By day 15, said the CTBTO, traces from the accident in Fukushima were detectable all across the northern hemisphere.”

  6. asbestos Lawyer beaumont Texas on June 19, 2013 at 1:46 am

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