CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Mailing Cheney’s Heart

With the exception of the old Pu-238 pacemaker, as hospitals & mortuaries prefer FedEx for some reason, all of these things have been sent through the mail by the USPS. Whether they should have is the issue. If the postal inspectors had checked, they’d be cranky.

[The eighteenth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

The underlying rules for what can and cannot be shipped, and by what methodologies, for the United States are all hiding in 49CFR, AKA the Department of Transportation part of the federal code. Additionally, we are beholden to IATA for international air transport rules. While the DOT regs matter and they dictate what shipping entities have to do, the shippers are quite welcome to be more restrictive in how they do this. This usually comes in the form of declaring that rad shipments may only be performed using the most expensive service. Or alternatively, the most popular restriction by far, “DOT marked Rad-I & II packages are forbidden. We only ship UN2910 limited quantities.”

But, honestly, your eBay sellers are just tossing things in a flat rate USPS box and shipping. No stickers. No papers. Nothing. And for a lot of stuff in the collector market, nothing is necessary. As an example, radioactive minerals are NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material) and there’s absolutely no restriction of shipping that. Even if it has a hell of a lot of thoria, it’s still a rock. Depending on the sorting facility, a spicy rock may trigger a detector that will get your package pulled aside and sent to the postal inspectors. When they open it, if they don’t just do a gamma spec, there will be an annoyed but relieved sigh of “Goddammit, it’s a rock.”

There also a specific carve out for items that specifically contain only non-dispersable natural thorium or natural/depleted uranium as a constituent component, like Fiestaware or depression/vaseline glass (AKA uranium crystal). Ship as big a box of that as you like. There is another exemption that lets you ship NRC generally licensed material without any special paperwork because the person who got that general license went through a hell of a lot work to certify the safety and integrity of their product in the first place. 

This brings us to our first item that gets you into trouble: the 12 smoke detector sources. The old smoke detectors with Am-241 sources are generally licensed, which is why you can slap one in a box and mail it back to the manufacturer. In fact, they ask you to do it. If you were being sent 12 smoke detectors, that’s fine, I’d assume you were renovating a large house. But when people crack them open to get at the juicy americium center, WELP, the shield of the general license instantly vanishes. Kinda like this:

Suddenly all the DOT shipping rules come crashing down on you again and gosh are they not generous with transuranics. If the postal inspectors notice you illegally shipping fragile alpha sources, they may very officious at both shipper and intended recipient.

Cheney’s old pacemaker is actually A-OK to ship for exactly the same reason as the whole smoke detector. You cracked open a human to remove it, but not the source itself. Even when no longer attached to Cheney’s skin husk, it’s still under general license. As reminder, general licensure doesn’t mean there’s a miniscule amount radioactive material present. It means that this consumer product has been tested for THIS SPECIFIC USE & CONFIGURATION to be okay for general sale without additional licenses required for possession or use. But, well, we’ve been selling consumer products that contain radioactive materials for longer than the NRC or it’s predecessor the AEC have existed. Your old watch with the the radium painted glow-in-the-dark face doesn’t have a general license because there wasn’t one to have. There’s been some retroactive exemptions given to shipping item like watches as they constitute good encapsulation of the flaking radium paint inside of the watch face. But for the more general radium stuff, it comes back to 49CFR for Tables A1 & 2 for what is an exempt quantity. 

Generally speaking, your small radium containing items are exempt and a low enough dose rate and little enough radium that no one’s going to notice. Except there’s this keyword in the regs that will get you in trouble with these ornaments: Non-Dispersable Solid. Anyone who has had the pleasure of playing with radium painted items has also had the displeasure of discovering how much crap they shed, contaminating they area around them. Your watch can convincingly claim to contain the shed and be non-dispersible. The painted ornaments? No. The poof of crumbling phosphor, radium, and probably old plastic is not a pleasure for anyone opening that box. If that’s a postal worker, you’re going to be having a nice chat with the postal inspectors again.

Which brings us to our 100g of UF4. Uranium tetraflouride, AKA Green Salt, is one of the chemical steps in uranium fuel processing which I, personally, find the most pleasing because it’s pretty. At this point, it’s in an intermediate processing phase of either nat-U or DU. While there is an exception for an item that contains only natural or depleted uranium that will let you freely ship as exempt for radioactive materials, umm, do not get so blinded by the uranium such that you ignore the chemical hazards and get literally blinded by fluorine. While rad exempt, so no DOT 7 sticker, you will have other paperwork to fill out for your DOT 8 (corrosive) sticker.

Stick to shipping RTG pacemakers to each other. But not Cheney’s, because that’s gross and we know exactly where its been.


In the inspiring events for this scenario, there was a shipment of “exempt” tritium luminous tubes in a rainbow of colors from a manufacturer in Russia via a vendor in the UK. Tritium is one of those radionuclides that doesn’t have uniform controls all over the world such that things like this can happen. What is exempt in one country because of low amount of activity may not be in another because of how it is used.

For the US, the NRC is very picky about what you can and can’t use radioactive materials in for general licensing. One of their NOPE points is called “frivolous use”, and the luminous tritium tubes for key fobs and zipper pulls are considered so. Not watches or gun sights, oddly enough. Anyway, a crafty person had ordered a box of these luminous tritiated tubes to make glowing art pieces for sale on $INTERNET_CRAFT_SITE. Each individual tube didn’t have much tritium in it. In aggregate, there was over ~40TBq of activity.

…smashed in the sorting facility.

Now, this sounds bad but that’s only a few old EXIT signs worth of tritium and the tritium release limits are quite high. But when glowing pink, green, and blue liquids start flowing people freak the fuck out. This looked a lot scarier than it was but tritium, as previously, discussed, is damn annoying because it is persistent, it migrates, and has juuust a long enough half-life to be an issue for the lifespan of a building. So, decon was done but the tritium wasn’t gone gone. What remaining contamination was left was low enough such that they didn’t have post anything, but not so low that you couldn’t find it if you sampled correctly. And everyone working there knew the event had happened and didn’t trust that it was safe afterward due to radiophobia.

To keep being able to use the facility over worker complaints, everything in the building had to be reconfigured to move all work away from that area and that part of the old sorting line was rotated out to another facility. This was one of dozens of hazmat incidents that had happened to just that one sorting facility, but even minor radiological incidents carry the sort of fear that can bring a regional hub to a screeching halt.

So please, for the sake of the USPS, use FedEx for all of your illegal shipping.

~fin~