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Feds deploy 'nuke sniffing' chopper to Arizona for upcoming Super Bowl

A federal agency is in charge of protecting the Super Bowl from nuclear attacks by constantly scanning the Valley for radiation.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A lone helicopter flies slowly around State Farm Stadium, only about 100 feet off the ground...sniffing. Sniffing for radiation. 

The helicopter is from the National Nuclear Security Administration. It's a little-known agency that, in part, is responsible for finding radioactive materials around big events like the Super Bowl.

There aren't many events in America that are bigger than the Super Bowl. 

Which makes it a perfect target.

The helicopter was the first step in a plan that the NNSA has carried out many times.

"Presidential inaugurations, Boston Marathon, any public event that rises to the level of high security," Dan Haber with the NNSA said. 

>> SBHQ: Check out the 12News Super Bowl guide

How it works

Before anyone goes looking for bombs, the NNSA has to know what's normal. 

Almost everything gives off some radiation. Granite gives off a lot of it, other rocks in the ground and even the radiology department at local hospitals can give off radiation.

The helicopter flies a tight pattern around the event, its instruments recording all the radiation that's around us every day. NNSA personnel convert that information to a baseline map that shows where the "naturally" occurring hotspots are. 

It's important to get a baseline map, so the authorities know what's supposed to be there. 

RELATED: Dozens of Super Bowl events planned in the Valley 
RELATED: No ticket? Here’s where you can watch the Super Bowl

Detecting from the ground

Once they have a baseline map, the NNSA deploys ground monitors. 

"They're paired with law enforcement later on," Haber said. "These are activities that are really designed to find any threats to the public."

The ground monitors are SUVs filled with radiation-detecting equipment. 

If they go off, meaning they detect a radiation source, the NNSA can compare it to the baseline map. If it's supposed to be there, it's not a threat. If the helicopter didn't see it before, then it could be a dirty bomb or even a nuclear weapon. 

If that happens, the NNSA calls in the cavalry. They work with the FBI, local police agencies, and everyone with a hand in Super Bowl security.

Super Bowl 

Get all the latest news and updates about what is going on around the Valley for Super Bowl LVII.

12News SBHQ  

12News is your home for all things Super Bowl LVII!

The Valley is expected to draw thousands of people to the Big Game – along with the many events and local attractions State 48 has to offer. 

In Phoenix, several events are planned including the Super Bowl Experience where families can enjoy free entertainment and the Super Bowl Music Fest

Scottsdale will be home to the Historic Old Town ESPN Main Street Tailgate and the Tailgate Time Machine block party. 

>> SBHQ: Check out the full 12News Super Bowl guide

In Tempe, the FanDuel Party at Tempe Beach Park on Feb. 10 Fans will feature a carnival atmosphere with games, music and more.  

Meanwhile, Glendale will host the Super Bowl itself, and city officials told 12News Glendale has had the explosive growth it needs to match it

Visitors can expect roadway and parking improvements, top-of-the-line security, and a newly expanded entertainment district ahead – a project that's been years in the making.

No ticket for game day? No problem. Here’s where you can watch the Super Bowl. 

The Grand Canyon State is home to some beautiful scenery and spectacular weather, both of which make for great golfing and hiking. The 12News digital team has guides to help make your Valley experience GREAT.

Looking for a more low-key Super Bowl weekend? Here’s an introvert’s guide to avoiding crowds on Super Bowl weekend

And here are five interesting places in the metro Phoenix area that every out-of-towner should try to visit before departing after the Super Bowl.


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