Frontier for Radiation. How Radiation Control at the State Border is Carried Out

“Radioactive Cargo Detained at the Border”. “A Tourist Tried to Smuggle Radioactive Watches Across the Border”. “The Stationary Monitoring System at the Border Crossing Point Detected Radiation Background Exceeding in the Luggage”. Such publications appear periodically on site due to the vigilance of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine in combating the illegal trafficking of radiation sources across the Ukrainian border. This article presents in more detail how the radiological control at the state border of Ukraine is organized.

The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine defines the illicit trafficking of radioactive materials as presence of nuclear materials, radioactive waste and radiation sources (except for equipment that generates or under certain conditions may generate ionizing radiation) beyond the state accounting and control systems of radioactive materials and/or their physical protection systems. Acquisition, storage, use, transfer, modification, destruction, transportation and disposal of such radioactive materials without compliance with the requirements established by law is also considered as illegal trafficking.

Those who traveled abroad can remember how they passed (went) through the “frame”: a scanner of a stationary system of automated control over the movement of radioactive substances and nuclear materials. The automated system gets actuated if the radiation background of luggage or cargo exceeds the natural one.

A truck passes through a radiation portal monitor. Image: Wikipedia

Luggage belonging to pedestrians and cars are scanned by stationary portal monitors TSA VM250, “Yantar 1-A” (for motor vehicles) and TSA PM700 and “Yantar 1-P” (for pedestrians). They are sensitive to radiation from the isotopes of plutonium-239, uranium-235, and plutonium-239 (with shielding). For example, TSA VM250 is able to detect 1 g of highly enriched uranium, 10 g of plutonium-239 with a probability of detection of 50% and a reliability of 95% if the radiation background is 20 μR/h. With respect to neutron radiation, detectors can detect less than 200 g of plutonium in a shielded container, which reduces the gamma radiation flux up to 1% of its unshielded flux.

82 state border crossing points are equipped with such devices, out of which 62 are automobile, 1 is railway, 6 are air, 10 are sea and 2 are ferry-river border crossing points. Another 13 stationary systems remained in the temporarily occupied territories after the start of the war with the Russian Federation.

Stationary monitoring systems allow minimizing the negative impact of the human factor on the process of detecting radioactive materials (corruption risks, human errors, etc.) and ensure 100% control of all scanned objects.

However, the total number of crossing points and checkpoints in Ukraine is much higher: 230 (including entry-exit border crossing points with certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions). Therefore, at the checkpoints without stationary monitoring systems, border guards execute manual monitoring using portable dosimeters and radiometers:

  • Dosimeter MKS-05 TERRA;
  • Dosimeter-signaler DKS-02-PN “Kadmiy”;
  • Dosimeter-signaler search engine Polimaster 1703 GNA;
  • Dosimeter-signaler MKS-07 “Poshuk”; MKS-11GN “Spectra”;
  • Universal dosimeter-radiometer MKS-03.

In addition, mobile radiological monitoring systems are used at three entry-exit crossing points on the border with the temporarily occupied territories: Maryinka (Donetsk Oblast), Stanytsia Luhanska (Lugansk Oblast) and Kalanchak (Kherson Oblast, on the administrative border with Crimea).

The map of active checkpoints across the state border of Ukraine. The interactive version is posted on the website of the State Border Guard Service

So, if the devices give out a signal that the radiation background of someone’s luggage or cargo exceeds the permissible level, it means that they contain a radiation source. It should be clarified that radiological monitoring at the border does not distinguish between types of radiation, just its presence. The conclusion on hazard of a suspicious object can also be made according to the following characteristics: appearance, presence of signs or inscriptions about radiation hazard, physical and chemical properties.

Then, in this case, the suspicious object (cargo) is detained and the relevant SBGS border guard unit informs a State Environmental Inspectorate station, local authorities and other relevant state bodies (these may be the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Ukraine, SNRIU).

The State Environmental Inspectorate official conducts a radiation inspection of the train cargo

These are experts of the State Environmental Inspectorate who conduct initial identification of the type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, X-ray), its specific source and either allow movement across the border, or decide to conduct additional laboratory examination of cargo or confiscate it at all. The seized radioactive materials are transferred for storage to the specialized enterprises of the “Radon Association”. According to the legislation, employees of a Radon enterprise may also be involved in a radiological survey of the detection place of suspicious material/object.

Which radiation sources are the most common ones in illicit trafficking attempts?

The SBGS reports that in 2018-2019 and 10 months of 2020, its units detected 19 radiation sources at border crossing points, 80% of which were among passengers’ luggage and in cars. These are mostly components of military and aviation equipment (watches, altimeters, etc.) and other industrial equipment with USSR-fabricated radionuclides.



Military equipment

Ferrous metals

Equipment (tools)














2020 (10 months)












Combatting the illicit trafficking of radioactive materials across Ukraine’s state border is performed in close cooperation with foreign partners and the U.S. Department of Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the framework of the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and the Second Line of Defense Program of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Installation of stationary radiation monitoring systems at the state border crossing points resulted also from Ukraine’s cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy during 2005-2020 under the Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence Program.

A Soviet aviation clock containing isotopes of radium-226 and thorium-232 is one of the most popular items in illegal trafficking

The SBGS reaffirmed its commitment to prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials across the border in November 2020 by signing an Agreement with the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.

Under the above Agreement it is envisaged to:

  • install radiation monitoring systems at more than 90 international border crossing points, airports and ports on the territory of Ukraine;
  • install radiation monitoring systems at checkpoints on the administrative border with the territories of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied by the Russian Federation;
  • deploy 14 field mobile radiation monitoring systems;
  • train law enforcement officers to combat illegal movement of nuclear materials;
  • maintain radiation monitoring systems and equipment.

Demonstration of radiation inspection of a car trying to cross the state border outside the checkpoint. Photo: Western Regional Department of the SBGS

Why is it important to combine efforts of several countries and support each other? Radioactive materials can be used by international terrorist organizations to make nuclear warheads, “dirty bombs”, and no country is safe from being used against it. Organized criminal groups may engage in the theft and illicit trade in nuclear materials or radiation sources. And, what is more, uncontrolled radiation sources, which are used without complying with all safety requirements, pose hazard to human health or even life.

Therefore, assisted by reliable partners, Ukraine continues improving radiological monitoring at its state border. There is still enough work to be done: equipping stationary border crossing points with stationary monitors, where they still are missing, gradual replacement of monitoring systems manufactured in Russia with Western analogues, training of SBGS servicemen, etc.

The material was prepared based on the article of the Deputy Head of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine Major-General Volodymyr Nikiforenko “Combating Illegal Movement of Radioactive Materials and Objects Across the State Border of Ukraine”, published in the scientific journal “Nuclear and Radiation Safety” (№ 1, 2021). Published by permission of the author.