CYORA: Spicy Rock Shipping

Because people were missing the CYORAs and something popped into my head, you got the first one in quite a while.

Moving radioactive rocks around is important because it lets us revisit one of my favorite topics: Regulations vs. Reality vs. What Actually Happens

[The twenty-second 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.]

Because the keyword in this CYORA is “reasonable”. Reasonable is a word that entire legal and regulatory careers are built on. You may recall from earlier explainers, the discussion of the underpinning philosophy of all our radiation protection rules regs, ALARA. If you’ve forgotten, ALARA is an acronym for the dose control philosophy that stands for “As Low As Reasonably Achievable”. Just because we have dose limits that doesn’t mean that you can go ahead and just burn people right up to that limit.

You take no dose without commensurate benefit and that dose is to be minimized to a reasonable extent. But what is reasonable?

Often this is a matter of means. If you don’t have the cash to buy fancy shielding and remote controls, buy a stopwatch and work fast. Of course, the other part of reasonable is being responsible enough adult to stop and realize “Look, we don’t have the money to do this properly so we probably shouldn’t do this at all.” It remarkable how rarely that thought process seems to cross people’s minds.

Which means when considering what is the most reasonable way to get that spicy rock home to put in your collection, this becomes a question of exactly how much money to have to spend to legally get it home to you.

NOTE: it’s a little trickier if 1000mi is an international trip

First, I need to tell you that all of the options in the poll are valid and legal ways to get your spicy rock home if, and this is a very important if, it is Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM). There, in fact, is no paperwork needed for your New Spicy Rock Friend…if you’re shipping/traveling domestically. he reason for this is that it’s hard to actually get dose rates off of minerals appreciable enough that you’d need to do DOT marking and shipping papers. Also, the specific exemption for NORM.

Oh, you can detect them, my goodness yes. As previously discussed, detectors have gotten better and cheaper every year which makes it easier to deploy them absolutely everywhere. Like in postal processing facilities, airports, ag inspection stations… Which means despite the fact that your rock is A Rock™ and thus requires no documentation, anything that sets off monitoring equipment is going to get the attention of people that, perhaps, don’t have the best training about what to do when the monitoring equipment is set off.

NOTE: When we’re talking truckload or railcar quantities of ore, the NORM shipping rules change and DOT & EPA care again. Accidentally dumping enough NORM in a place where it wasn’t before is considered to be, technically speaking, bad.

But for your plain ol’ new spicy rock, I want to take a moment to applaud the incredibly dedicated 4.6% of you that are jumping on a plane to get that rock back home as quickly as possible. You are a good rock friend, but you’re probably about to have some new life experiences. First, put it in your carry on luggage. You want to be able to have this conversation with the supervisor at the TSA checkpoint. Be sure to arrive with plenty of time before the flight. If you put it in checked luggage, it may very well vanish into The Dark Airport Below. Assuming you successfully educate and/or find a brighter, better trained, and diligent TSA employee with respect to your new rock, all is well. All you need to worry about is the current fun that is flying the Age of COVID.

Is it reasonable? Eh. Expensive and fraught with TSA. If you have the money and time, I’m all for the adventure for arguing with/educating TSA agents but I’m funny that way.

If you don’t have the money but do have the time, almost half of you are willing to do the Iron Ass Challenge to drive a total of 2000mi to get your new rock.To people outside of North America, this sounds absolutely cuckoo bananas because 2000mi would be several laps around most countries. In the United States, all you did was drive from one tip of Texas to the other and back. In Alaska, you didn’t even manage that in America’s Hugest, Most Mastodonic State.

I want to compliment 44.9% for choosing the path of least resistance and most truck stop pee breaks. It is absolutely fine to transport your new Spicy Rock Friend in your trunk. You are, in fact, very unlikely to get stopped. The roadway monitors are good but not looking for you. This is the point where I need to clarify that your rock is a plain old NO BONUS RADIATION FUN naturally occurring radioactive mineral.

If your rock was tossed in a reactor for a bit (please don’t), a large hunk of radioactive glass from a test site (also don’t), it ain’t NORM.


(Obligatory Norm gif. The Forms of Kanly have been obeyed.)

If you’re having a bit to much fascinating gamma emission from your vehicle that doesn’t conform to the uranium/thorium equilibrium with progeny spectra, you may get to see a gunhaver with flashy lights. But back to wholesome NORM rocks.

If you don’t have the time or money to go retrieve your new spicy rock in person, you’re going to have to resort to mailing it. If you have any experience with shipping radioactive materials, you’re probably familiar with the fact the FedEx holds an endorsement to ship rad. FedEx regularly ships all kinds of radioactive materials all over America and the world…and they make you pay dearly to do it. But this has the benefit that the rock will actually get to you. Again, as NORM, no special paperwork or labelling is required but they may ask for UN2910. The advantage to FedEx is an insurance claim if they lose or destroy it by accident, something that they do much more often than USPS despite a lower parcel volume. You lose your new Spicy Rock Friend but at least you may get compensation.

Which brings us to flat rate USPS Priority Mail. It is a well established health physics joke that you can move an entire source cave, one lead brick at a time, in large flat rate boxes. As long as it’s less than 70lbs and not blatantly hazardous, it ships. But your shipper had best pack it extremely well. In my experience, the sad thing about a lot of radioactive minerals is that they’re delicate. Doesn’t matter how many times you write “FRAGILE” on the box, it better be packed to survive cruel treatment. The flat rate box will likely be 1/4 the price of a similar FedEx shipment and probably get to you faster. If for some reason your rock manages to set off a detector in a sorting facility, the USPS Postal Inspectors will give it a peek. This will delay things a bit.

INTERLUDE: Gadget is miffed I’m not using two hands to pet him. One for cat and one for explainers is NOT OKAY.Image

Postal Inspectors will not cause your new rock friend to vanish because they know better than the box flingers in the sorting facility, but it may get delayed. Possibly for weeks. Worst case scenario, they hand it to Customs to ask for analysis. The delay is now months. This is more or less the way that United Nuclear continues to exist with their uranium sales. They can ship pretty much any NORM they want with as many exciting activity statements and rad trefoils as they like…inside the box.

Outside, it’s just any other parcel.


For the inspiration for this CYORA, I just ask you to stop and think about when you see something that makes you seriously question “How in the hell is this legal to sell or ship?” The answer very likely is that it isn’t, or at least that the seller doesn’t have the endorsement to do it legally and is just hoping that the Waves of Bullshit coursing through our postal systems because of Amazon is enough background noise that it sails through.

Of course, it might not. Now the Postal Inspectors have something squirrelly and they’ve got two names on it. They’ll be talking to, possibly fining or arresting, you both if they can.

From a previous CYORA in its inspiring events section, you can read about tritium whoopsies.