By Summer BarkleyJanuary 19, 2015
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Jan. 19, 2015) -- Care is exercised with all items being retrograded, but extra care and a team of experts is leveraged when equipment containing radioactive isotopes and trace amounts of radioactive material are returned to the United States for reuse or repair.
The items consist primarily of advanced combat optical gunsights, or ACOGs, mortar scopes and other equipment that uses tritium as a constant light source. The equipment contains tritium in very low concentrations, but is still handled carefully and according to strict protocols.
The equipment comes to the 401st Army Field Support Brigade's, or AFSB, Theater Provided Equipment and Coalition Provided Equipment sections, from the retrosort yards and finally from unit equipment turned in to the brigade's Afghanistan retrograde processing centers at Bagram and Kandahar.
Once equipment with radioactive components is identified in the retrograde process, the real work and real teamwork begins. The team includes 1st Theater Sustainment Command, or 1TSC; 4th Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade; 401st AFSB and Army Field Support Battalion-Air Force Base, or AFSBn-AFB; 172nd Medical Detachment (Preventive Medicine); the U.S. Army Test, Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment Activity's nucleonic laboratory located at the Rhein Ordnance Barracks-Weilerbach in the Kaiserslautern military community; the Army Dosimetry Center, part of the Aviation and Missile Command's Test Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment Activity at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama; the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command's Life Cycle Management Command's Nuclear Regulation Authority license holder; military customs officials; U.S. Air Force aerial porters and flight crews; and contractors from Fluor Corp. and AC First.
This teamwork emphasizes the willingness of the disparate organizations to work together for the greater good.
The first action is to visually inspect the equipment and place each piece into individual plastic bags that prevent migration of radioactive material. A wipe test is conducted on all pieces of damaged equipment and a percentage of undamaged equipment. The tests are sent to the nucleonic lab and will take approximately 45 days for the results to be returned.
"What we use is metricel wipes … dipped in water prior to wiping," said Staff Sgt. Roy E. Heape III, health physics technician, Task Force Medical, 172nd Medical Detachment, Preventative Medicine. "They easily absorb oxidized tritium (H-3), if it is present on the item, and each wipe is placed into its own sealed glass vial."
Heape said he wears latex gloves when handling all equipment and when a piece is identified as damaged, it's double bagged and segregated from the rest of the equipment so as not to cross contaminate. He changes gloves to further prevent the risk of cross contamination.
"Almost all of the sources we work with are low level tritium sources which present a relatively low hazard for handling," Heape said.
While awaiting the test results, the equipment is stored inside a metal container. It is inventoried daily with the inventory time logged as well as logging each time the container is opened.
"If a wipe test comes back with an elevated reading, all equipment in that group is tested," said Patrick A. LeBlanc, AFSBn-AFG safety specialist.
Once the results are received, the equipment is readied for shipping. This step involves Capt. Audrey J. Dean, 1TSC deputy safety director and radiation safety officer, and Sgt. 1st Class Teng Xiong-White, 4th Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade.
Dean inspects and signs off on paperwork while Xiong-White inspects the sealed shipping containers to ensure no leakage. Once Dean and Xiong-White are satisfied, paperwork is signed and the equipment will be sent to Dover Air Force Base, Del., by military aircraft and then forwarded to the Army Dosimetry Center, part of the Aviation and Missile Command's Test Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment Activity, where it will be inspected once again.
At this point, equipment found to need repair will be returned to the manufacturer while serviceable equipment is sent to an army service point in Texas.
Dean said that Xiong-White has access to unit equipment lists and she proactively contacts the units to check the items early and work with them throughout their redeployment process
"This effort exemplifies teamwork at its greatest in the Army," LeBlanc said. "Bringing a number of elements together for the common purpose of responsibly retrograding radioactive materials from the CJOA [combined joint operations area] back to the U.S."
LeBlanc went on to credit Brett Blount, the former 401st AFSB safety director, who began investigating requirements to retrograde the equipment and invested 'hundreds of hours setting up the framework and positioning the battalion for success.'
"Our processes are very efficient, safe processes," Dean said. "We train the right people and let the subject matter experts do their job. It's a simple and safe process with no reason for a scare."