Implementing Nuclear Security Detection Architecture at borders: Cuba Customs shares its experience

25 June 2024
By the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba

Since 2009, within the framework of the Integrated Plan to support Cuba’s Nuclear Physical Security, the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba (GCR) has been developing a nuclear physical security detection architecture at the border, in conjunction with national agencies and multilateral organizations such as the International Nuclear Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Customs Organization (WCO).

Physical deployment of RPMs

Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs) are one of the elements of this architecture, whose aim is to ensure that the characteristic radiation emitted by nuclear and radiological materials is detected in cargo (at import and export, and during transshipment) and in passengers’ luggage. The deployment of RPMs in Cuba began in 2014 at all strategic locations that receive international cargo and passengers, including Havana´s Jose Marti International Airport, the International Cargo Customs Office, and seaport container terminals. These RPMs alert Customs officers – commonly referred to in this context as “front-line officers” (FLOs)[1] – to the presence of radioactive and nuclear material; they also provide information about, for example, the nature of the material detected (gamma, neutron or both) and the scale of the alert.

Specific radiation level thresholds for triggering an alarm have been set, but, in order to detect all radioactive material out of regulatory control (MORC), including low-gamma-activity materials such as highly-enriched uranium, these thresholds must be set relatively low. Experts categorize the alarms generated by RPMs into three categories: false (no radioactive material is present), innocent (no threat material is present), and non-innocent (MORC is present). There are a multitude of potential causes for innocent alarms, such as the presence of radioactive materials in legitimate medical equipment, and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) in commonly shipped cargo such as ceramics, fertilizers and granite tiles. Radioactive materials will also be detected in passengers who have recently received radionuclides for medical diagnosis or treatment. False alarms can occur due to detector malfunction, maintenance work and various other incidents.

Standard Operating Procedures

Given the risks involved in controlling nuclear and radiological materials, the response to a radiation alarm is strictly regulated; Standard Operating Procedures have been developed by the Technical committee of standards CTN 119 Radiological Protection which brings together several regulatory bodies such as the Directorate of Nuclear Safety, the Directorate of Nuclear Security, and the national services in charge of public health, Customs and transportation, among others.

If the radiation level is lower than 100 micro Sieverts/hour, in order to determine whether an alarm is false, innocent or not innocent, the procedure for controls on cargo involves the following specific steps:

1/ When an alarm is generated by an RPM:

  • FLOs verify that the alarm has been triggered by an actual increase in the radiation level, and assess the alarm by comparing the total radiation reading with the declared content of the container or cargo concerned.
  • A radiological image is generated to rule out the possible presence of shielding, which can reduce radiation from a possible hidden source.
  • In the presence of NORMs, FLOs look for anomalies – such as a sharp spike in the radiation profile – that could indicate the presence of undeclared materials.
  • FLOs clear the container if the alarm proves to be false or innocent, or block it if they consider that there is a potential risk.

2/ If it has not been possible to adequately determine the cause of the alarm using the first step, the container is blocked and a secondary inspection is conducted on the container as follows:

  • FLOs go on-site for identification and confirmation of the isotope, using a handheld radioisotope identification device (RIID).
  • FLOs will clear the container or cargo concerned if they consider that the alarm is false/innocent, or they will contact experts.

3/ FLOs are never to open a container which carries a radiation risk; they must ask an expert to intervene if tertiary inspection is to be performed:

  • FLOs ensure that the container remains secure at a specific location.
  • FLOs call in radiation safety and security experts.
  • FLOs alert the regulatory body in charge of radiological safety and security, via established channels (official emails and telephone).

In the case of passengers and their luggage, the procedure when an alarm is generated is as follows:

  • the passenger is asked to pass through the monitor a second time, to see if the alarm recurs.
  • If the alarm recurs, a hand-held or pocket-type instrument is used to examine the passenger and his/her belongings.
  • If the presence of radiation is confirmed, FLOs ensure the luggage or item remains secure at a specific location.
  • FLOs call in radiation safety and security experts.
  • FLOs alert the regulatory body in charge of nuclear control.

The Technical committee of standards CTN 119 Radiological Protection has incorporated GCR SOPs in its Radioactive Preparedness Emergency Plan, in the event of the appearance of MORC. These SOPs have been given the status of a National Standard (NC ISO 22188/2019).

The system was audited and certified in 2016, by experts mandated by the IAEA to conduct an Emergency Preparedness Review (EPREV) at the request of the Cuban government. The team of experts identified specific good practices that go beyond the requirements set out in the IAEA safety standards, including:

  • the use of a comprehensive system for methodically analysing actual national and international events, identifying lessons learned and disseminating them to all relevant organizations;
  • providing Customs officers with integrated training on nuclear or radiological emergency preparedness and response, in close cooperation with the regulatory authorities responsible for safety and security.


In Cuba, education is both a right and a duty for everyone. The effective principles applied in the educational policy and in shaping the educational system are: education is provided free of charge and to everyone, study and work are combined for educational purposes, co-education (allowing girls and boys equal access to education, with no discrimination based on gender), and the principle that the whole of society participates in the educational endeavour.

Training activities began even before RPMs were deployed, with a WCO workshop on Strategic Trade Control being organized in 2012; these activities continued with the development of e-learning courses and face-to-face training curricula thanks to the support of the IAEA.

In 2019, Cuba’s “Enrique José Varona” University of Pedagogical Sciences developed the “Didactic Preparation Programme for Customs officers who manage the nuclear physical security detection architecture at the border”. A doctoral research programme was also established by the University, to run from 2023 to 2025.

The Didactic Preparation Programme consists of four modules:

Module 1 deals with the nuclear detection architecture at the border, and includes theoretical courses and practical exercises on:

a) Responsibilities in the field of nuclear safety detection, and legal and procedural mechanisms for providing effective protection;

b) Radiation and the principles of radiation safety;

c) Types of materials, practices and processes related to detection;

d) Risk management for nuclear security;

e) Risk indicators;

f) Detection techniques and managing alerts;

g) Secondary inspection and initial response;

h) Didactic components for the development of practical demonstration classes and teaching aids.

Module 2 deals with Non-intrusive Inspection Systems (NIIs) and frequently-used equipment, covering the following topics:

a) Technical means of detection;

b) General characteristics of devices and systems;

c) Operating principles and component parts of the equipment;

d) Functions of the components;

e) Pre-operational checks;

f) Main regulations and documents for use by the operator.

All Customs officers preparing to be Higher Customs Technicians in the Customs Enforcement Division are required to take Modules 1 and 2. After graduating they follow additional study programmes each year, according to the specific post they occupy. The other two modules (Modules 3 and 4) are intended for radiation protection instructors, as well as managers who perform part-time teaching functions.

In addition, virtual courses explaining how to respond to a radiation alert have been designed by Cuba’s Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de Simuladores. These courses cover several types of alerts, such as alerts triggered by detection portals (RPMs), metal and explosive detectors or CCTV systems, and alerts issued by (i) the national regulatory bodies for the import and export of authorized radioactive sources, (ii) multilateral organizations, and (iii) analysts of the X-ray images generated by cargo and baggage scanners.

Lessons learned

Several lessons have been learned from the deployment of the nuclear detection architecture.

Firstly, collaboration between government agencies is key when developing and implementing procedures. Such collaboration is formalized via the Technical committee of standards CTN 119 Radiological Protection as well as via the National Committee for Nuclear Physical Security which brings together representatives from the Ministries of the Interior, Foreign Relations and Transportation, from the Directorate of Nuclear Safety, from Customs and from other services, depending on the topic to be discussed. These two Committees draw up the road map for the strengthening of both human and technological capabilities; they meet monthly to evaluate the application of agreed actions and measures, and exchange information about new trends, ways of operating, case studies and lessons learned.

Customs has also signed Memoranda of Cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior (regulator for nuclear security) and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (regulator for nuclear safety), which establish specific communication mechanisms to ensure that the efforts of both parties are integrated and mutually reinforcing.

Also of the utmost importance is continuous training and capacity building, to ensure that officers perform their functions safely and effectively. Finally, the legal and regulatory frameworks must be improved continuously through periodic evaluation by the parties.

More information

[1] Front-line officers (FLOs) are individuals from a designated government organization or institution who potentially will be the first to come into contact with nuclear and other radioactive material out of regulatory control, either following an information alert or through an instrument alarm. See IAEA Nuclear Security Series (ref: NST016)