Two helicopters roared past my Albany window Monday morning, flying in tandem, low.
Did you see them?
They caught my attention, in part, because of their noise, louder than the usual TV news, police, or medical rescue helicopters. There was also something about their pairing—an urgent dual mission?
They also caught my attention because for the past several weeks I’ve been probing Bay Area helicopter action for a long-awaited (by my patient editor) follow-up to a post last month about a government survey of naturally-occurring radiation.
The late-August low-flying arial survey was conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is part of the Department of Energy (DOE), for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).
Patch's post triggered lots of questions in comments, understandably. The post was largely a republication of a press release put out by the National Nuclear Safety Administration, with minimal info.
As one Albany reader wrote:
“This article left me with more questions than answers - I'd already heard about the helicopters on Facebook several days ago. How do 'natural background radiation levels' occur or what is known about this? "Data will be used to improve aerial radiation measurements" - does that mean they're collecting data to better collect data? What does the data inform? How much money does it cost? Just wondering...”
And for the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to learn more. This door, I’ve learned, is shut pretty tightly. Which implies the action is classified, top secret, or certainly not something the U.S. government wants to chat about in detail.
I started this quest by emailing a list of questions to nearly all the contacts on the press release. The email asked for more information on the purpose of the survey, and on naturally occurring radiation.
Over the course of a few weeks I was bounced from agency to agency, with many sources never getting back to me, and others only after nagging, or calling again and again. The people I reached weren't unfriendly, nor were they what I'd call forthright. (Note: I freelance for Patch and, while I was persistent, I couldn't pursue this like a daily job.)
Finally, I asked if someone could simply say the information I sought was classified or verboten, which would be better than questing against a current of no responses.
Just last week the buck stopped, I think, with Peter Boogaard, a Department of Homeland Security official, who wrote:
“The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) works closely with the Department of Homeland Security operational components and international, federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners to understand operational needs, formulate requirements and develop technologies for the field.
"DNDO is funding aerial surveys to collect measurements of naturally-occurring radiation in the air and on the ground, as part of research and development for airborne detector systems. The Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration’s Remote Sensing Laboratory is conducting the airborne surveys at the request of DNDO.”
I asked Boogaard some follow-up questions, mostly about why now, why here, and the prevalence of naturally-occurring radiation.
“No comment,” he wrote back.
I’m still interested in naturally-occurring radiation in general, including on why and where it occurs, and who or what, if anyone, monitors its potential health impacts.
Stay tuned for this—I’ve put out questions to possible local experts, who weren’t on the initial press release.
Oh, those low-flying helicopters I saw Monday morning? I asked Boogaard if they had anything to do with the radiation survey. He asked if they belonged to homeland security. I answered that I didn’t have a clue. And that was pretty much the end of the discussion.
If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at email@example.com.