Radioactivity and containers vanishing from the port of Antsiranana

Radioactivity and containers vanishing from the port of Antsiranana

By Tiana Rakotobe and Riana Raymond

"The problem is more serious." It is March 2013 and a team from the INSTN (National Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology) is in Antsiranana to measure the level of radioactivity emitted by the new container scanner operated by the Gasynet company, as regulations require for this type of device. The Geiger counters are all over the place and the technicians are confused.

Set up in 2007 as a public-private partnership between the Malagasy Government and the Swiss company SGS, Malagasy Community Network Services SA, commonly called Gasynet, is responsible for improving the country’s customs performance, including rolling out container scanners in its key ports.

The Antsiranana scanner is due for inauguration next month, and preparations are well underway. However, INSTN's radioactivity measurements are abnormally high, even when the scanner is turned off. This radiation seems to come from nowhere. Before leaving Antsiranana for Antananarivo, the INSTN technicians give the Gasynet team the most plausible explanation for these high measurements: the radiation originates from a natural source in the port’s substrata.

"We took new measurements with both our radiameters between 16:20 and 16:40 today, and I think the problem is more serious. In fact, we recorded the highest dose - 12 μSv/H – 50 metres from our fences" an alarmed GasyNet employee emailed to his supervisor on March 27, 2013.

The measuring unit used by GasyNet radiameters, which are radiation measuring instruments, is μSv /H (microsievert per hour), a physical quantity that measures the impact that exposure to ionizing radiation such as radioactivity has on biological tissues. A radioactivity level between 7.5 and 25 μSv received in one hour is comparable to radiation exposure in highly radioactive natural environments.

Using several radiation meters, the Gasynet team tried to triangulate the source of the radioactive output. Suspicion quickly fell on a group of containers located in the port area managed by the Diégo Handling Company (Compagnie de Manutention de Diégo - COMADIE), whose main client is the CMA-CGM, near a wooden hut a few metres from the wharf. The French container ship owner CMA-CGM is the only one, together with MSC, operating in the Antsiranana port. According to someone who was at the port at the time, the suspect area consisted of four containers. According to another, it was rather two containers placed side by side.


The Antsiranana port and location of the suspect container


Immediately, the Gasynet staff in the Antsiranana port were forbidden by their management from approaching the area where the suspect containers were located, and the INSTN was urgently called back. While waiting for the INSTN to act, GasyNet measured the radioactivity in the port daily.

Three weeks later, the scanner site was inaugurated as planned. The day before, on April 17, 2013, one of the containers in the suspect zone vanished.

The Gasynet team carried on taking daily measurements after the inauguration. At 5:50 pm on April 23, 2013, six days after the suspect container vanished, a radioactive dose of 63 μSV/h, 126 times higher than the authorized public dose, was measured where the scanner is situated. The level of radioactivity fell gradually over the following weeks. As the source of the output had obviously disappeared, the INSTN’s return to Antsiranana was finally cancelled.

The number of the vanished container was noted before it disappeared. It was a 40-foot refrigerated model ("reefer") with the ID number ACMU9208282. This number, however, proved to be fake. In fact, no shipping company uses the acronym "ACMU". Not surprisingly, the ghost container did not have any documentation justifying its presence in the port.

The Antsiranana port gendarmerie, who collaborated with MALINA network’s journalists in this investigation, was not able to provide the container’s exit log for the month of April 2013, the latter having disappeared as well. As luck would have it, the container’s exit log from May 7, 2013 onwards was available. A meticulous analysis of all containers’ entries and exits at the Antsiranana port from 2011 to 2015, outside the period covered by the missing logbook, found no trace of the lost container.


Antsiranana port container entry and exit log as of May 7, 2013


Five years after the event, most of the people working at the Antsiranana port at the time have since been transferred elsewhere. Those who remain do not seem to recall this vanishing container. It is true that, at the time, before the scanner was installed, the port was subject to many "disappearances", in the opinion of Max Zafisolo, the current Customs chief at the Antsiranana port. Trafficking was common then. For example, on April 4, 2013, while the radioactive container was still there, an illicit load of rosewood was intercepted in the port.

This disappearance could not have happened without collusion. A container cannot be moved without being handled. There are only two handling companies operating in the Antsiranana port: CMDMD (Compagnie Malgache de Manutention de Diego-Suarez) and COMADIE (Compagnie de Manutention de Diégo), both of which are owned by the ENAC group. As the small port of Antsiranana has only one gate for containers to leave through, one can hardly imagine that no-one noticed an "undocumented" container leaving. Perhaps the people paid to turn a blind eye thought they were dealing with ordinary trafficking?

Many questions remain unanswered. What did this radioactive container contain? What happened to it? How did it get to the Antsiranana port?

If the Gasynet scanner hadn’t been installed in the port and revealed abnormally high levels of radioactivity, this container might have stayed there for a long time undisturbed. It is frightening to imagine that this container is, perhaps, not the first to pass through the port of Antsiranana, or any other uncontrolled ports in the country.

According to a well-informed source that wishes to remain anonymous, there is no doubt that we are dealing here with international trafficking of radioactive waste. We are not talking here about military-type waste, or even used fuel from nuclear power plants. Many fields of activity produce low-level radioactive waste, primarily the hospital sector. Processing this waste is particularly expensive. Abandoning a container filled with this type of waste in one of Madagascar’s port, well-known for its porosity, would be a great way to get rid of it cheaply.

An alternative explanation for these high radioactivity measurements, is a measuring error. The abnormal measurements might result from calibration mistakes in the survey meters used by the Gasynet team at the time. However, the measuring error theory is not compatible with radioactivity measurements specifically pointing to a group of suspicious containers inside the port. In addition, a failure of Gasynet's measuring instruments would not explain the high measurements first detected by the INSTN technicians.


The INSTN head office in Antananarivo


Could the radar on some ships in the port have disrupted these instruments and mislead the INSTN technicians and Gasynet teams? Professor Joel Rajaobelison, INSTN Director General since 2017, and his team of technicians believe neither this hypothesis, nor the measurement error hypothesis. Radar wavelengths are very different from those measured by radiameters. Since the Antsiranana scanner operating licence must be renewed every two years, the INSTN carried out new radioactivity level tests in the port in 2005 and 2007. No abnormal radioactivity was detected at those times, which also refutes the possibility that the radioactivity measured in 2003 was from a natural source.

It may never be possible to know what happened with certainty, but this story shows, if need be, that Madagascar’s vulnerable ports not only open the door to the trafficking of natural resources, that has sadly become commonplace, but also jeopardize the safety and health of its inhabitants.

Through a partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), INSTN will soon install radioactivity measuring instruments at Ivato International Airport. Two ports in the country are also subject to regular radioactivity measurement. The INSTN is working closely with the Maritime Information Fusion Centre (Centre de Fusion des Informations Maritimes - CFIM) to monitor suspicious vessels that might carry hazardous materials. These efforts are commendable but are they enough to protect an island with a coastline over 5,000 kilometers long?