Nuclear Disablement Team trains aboard Nuclear Ship Savannah
November 7, 2011
- Nuclear Disablement Team Soldiers train aboard national landmark
Most military units' training exercises are not inspired by a National Public Radio broadcast; then again, the 20th Support Command (CBRNE)'s Nuclear Disablement Teams are not like most units.
Capt. Jay Ross, nuclear research officer for NDT 3, was listening to NPR one day and heard a brief story about the Nuclear Ship Savannah, the first nuclear-powered merchant ship that was a product of the Eisenhower-era initiative "Atoms for Peace," and it piqued his interest. He found out the ship was moored in Baltimore, just a few miles away from the 20th Support Command (CBRNE)'s headquarters at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"After I heard the story, I sat down at my computer and Googled the NS Savannah website. The contact information was right there, and I sent an email to the program manager, Erhard Koeller," Ross said. "He replied the next day and we were able to set up a visit."
The contact between the program manager and Ross inspired the captain to devise a possible training evolution aboard the decommissioned vessel. That idea blossomed into a full training exercise aboard the Savannah for NDT 3 Nov. 1 -- 4.
"They were easy to work with, even with the added trouble of interpreting 'Army-ese' to Maritime Administration personnel. That is actually an underestimated aspect of training. Any time you step out of your Department of Defense comfort zone and interact with other agencies, it makes you better at interagency operations, which is important for personnel on an NDT," Ross said.
The NDT is a unit of nuclear experts equipped and trained to perform missions that support theater and strategic objectives. These highly-specialized teams of nuclear engineers, physicists, radiation technicians, chemical technicians, health physicists, and explosive ordnance disposal personnel have the ability to disable nuclear weapons of mass destruction infrastructure, package, transport, and safeguard nuclear and radiological materials, collect and transport samples of radiological material for forensic analysis, and conduct sensitive site exploitation operations on nuclear sites.
The highly-technical nature of their mission requires the team to get creative when devising training that is both enlightening and cost effective. That's why the NS Savannah was such a great find, according to Ross.
"This past September we conducted our first collective disablement exercise as NDT 3 at a site in Tennessee. The team performed very well, but there is always room for improvement," Ross said. "We looked at the Savannah as an opportunity to refine our tactics, techniques, and procedures and to develop sub-team operations as well as workout any logistical issues we discovered at previous exercises."
The NS Savannah, which was christened in July of 1959, was the world's first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship, one of only four nuclear-powered cargo ships built, and was the showcase of the Eisenhower "Atoms for Peace," initiative. It was built in the opening years of the Cold War for a cost of $46.9 million, including a $28.3 million nuclear reactor fuel core. The reactor has since been removed and the ship is now an official National Historic Landmark of the United States.
The abandoned spaces and empty passageways of the vessel proved to be the perfect place for the NDT Soldiers to ply their trade.
"Other than exercises where individuals augmented Navy units onboard ships, this was the first time any of us had conducted training like this on a ship," Ross said.
Groups of NDT 3 Soldiers took turns going through the process of boarding and searching the Savannah, and then taking readings which were reported to the field headquarters located pier-side. The NDT was assisted throughout the training by members of the Army Public Health Command.
"PHC helps us out quite often with our training, providing radioactive sources locally and at no additional cost to the unit, as there would be when we have a national lab bring samples from another facility," Ross said.
In addition to the training exercise, members of the 20th Support Command (CBRNE)'s NDTs were also given a guided tour by some of the program managers.
"Our mission doesn't really change whether we are on a ship or not, most of our procedures remain the same regardless of the environment or exercise. But being on the ship and working in the confined spaces was beneficial to us in regards to some of the basics of our training like entry procedures," said Lt. Col. Michael Nelson, NDT 3 chief.
Because the ship was located in Baltimore, the team was able to get some excellent training at minimum cost, which is a very big plus in an era when the DOD is looking to control and cut costs at every level, Nelson said.
"The NDT mission is a very technical one, so the more opportunities that we get to train is better because it is critical that we maintain our skill sets," Nelson said.
For some of the Soldiers who trained aboard the Savannah, this was their first time boarding a vessel that was also an official historic landmark.
"This was pretty interesting. I have never seen anything like it before," said Sgt. Ryan Wickenden of the 9th Area Medical Laboratory who attended the training with the Soldiers of NDT 3.
Nelson and Ross both stressed that none of the training would have been possible without the efforts and hospitality of the maintainers of the NS Savannah.
"I would be surprised if no other teams return to train. There is really no downside to training on the Savannah, only positives," Ross said. "I think that we have found a local gem, and the feedback I received from my team and others supports that sentiment… I would strongly encourage other units to look into it. If I had known about the Savannah earlier, we would have been going down there for years."