Nuclear forensics task force helps identify source of terrorist attack during major exercise
August 13, 2012
MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. (Aug. 13, 2012) -- It sounds like a Hollywood movie. A terrorist detonated a nuclear device in a major Midwestern city.
More than 300,000 killed; hundreds of thousands more wounded or missing. Local, state and federal forces rush in to provide lifesaving and life-sustaining care.
A small team of Soldiers, Airmen, FBI agents and scientists set up a forward operating base near the hot-zone and start collecting samples to be rushed off to national laboratories to be analyzed to help track the nuclear device to those responsible.
That is the training scenario for Prominent Hunt 12, a smaller exercise within Vibrant Response 13, a major incident exercise conducted by U.S. Northern Command and led by U.S. Army North.
Members of the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Ground Collections Task Force, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, assembled from the Department of Justice, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, with oversight from the Department of Homeland Security, conducted 24-hour operations July 26-31, at Jefferson Proving Grounds, Ind., to collect the simulated radioactive debris samples quickly and to process, prepare and package the evidence for transport to national laboratories.
The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, led the planning for the exercise and facilitated its execution. DHS coordinates the U.S. Government nuclear forensics program across six federal organizations with responsibilities for nuclear forensics, which also include the Department of State and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
"In the event of a nuclear detonation, the foremost question in the mind of the President of the United States, members of Congress and the American people will be: 'Who is responsible for this?'" said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Terry Kerns, deputy assistant director of the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
The mission of the task force was straightforward.
"We are collecting evidentiary samples after a post-detonation event to do analysis and provide insight for attribution," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Fred Pflueger, the task force leader.
Determining those responsible for an actual attack would depend on information from intelligence and law enforcement as well as nuclear forensics analysis.
From their unnamed forward operating base at JPG, Soldiers from Nuclear Disablement Team 2, 20th Spt. Cmd., based at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., headed out to collect a spectrum of simulated radioactive debris samples that are then passed on to the Department of Energy, or DOE, scientists.
On each collection mission, a four-man team, composed of two Nuclear Disablement Team Soldiers, an FBI special agent who must stay with the team to maintain chain of custody, and a DOE scientist, collected samples at locations that the task force planning cell had determined based on the simulated plume after the detonation.
The Soldiers, in personal protective equipment, used small, hand-held vacuums to capture the debris for handoff.
"Then the DOE takes collection at the [Forward Operating Base], screens it, and then it's flown out with a special agent to a national laboratory for analysis," said Maj. Leif Hansen, Nuclear Training and Exercises, 20th Spt. Cmd.
The Nuclear Disablement Team Soldiers said they enjoyed the opportunity to perform their mission.
"What we are doing is assisting the FBI with evidentiary collection of ground samples," said Staff Sgt. Sacha Moore, NDT 2. "Every day that I get to do my job is a great day."
During the exercise, the task force was able to accomplish a milestone.
"Today (July 30) we took it (collection samples) on a Black Hawk helicopter from here to a nearby Army airfield and then flew it out on a fixed-wing aircraft to Los Alamos National Laboratory (in Los Alamos, N.M.)," said Hansen.
Before the formation of the joint task force, collection missions were not well integrated among the separate organizations and were less efficient, said Pflueger.
"Now we have a unified front and excellent agency interoperability," said Pflueger, adding that Army North's exercise was a great opportunity for the task force to rehearse its mission and certify the Nuclear Disablement Team Soldiers.
"It was great working with Army North and Vibrant Response, and we received outstanding logistical support," he said.
Working with the FBI, DHS and DOE has been beneficial for Army North, said Lt. Col. Thomas Bright, director of training for Army North.
"Every interaction is an opportunity to learn," said Bright, "and we're certainly learning."
The task force has made great strides, said Brig. Gen. Leslie Smith, commanding general, 20th Spt. Cmd.
"The [National Technical Nuclear Forensics Ground Collections Task Force] has grown immeasurably in the last two years," said Smith. "They demonstrated great interagency and intergovernmental cooperation. It took the hard work of all the team members to make this mission happen."