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AFIT, Army collect nuclear forensics data

  • Published
  • By Katie Scott
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- If a radiological-dispersal device, sometimes called a dirty bomb, were to detonate in the United States, Soldiers would deploy alongside the FBI, Air Force Technical Applications Center, and Department of Energy to collect nuclear forensic samples used to determine its type and source. 

“Because the samples could be evidentiary, the FBI maintains a chain of custody.  Due to the mission’s logistical constraints, it could take days before the samples reach a national lab for analysis,” said Army Lt. Col. Christina Dugan, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and deputy director of the Nuclear Expertise for Advancing Technologies Center at the Air Force Institute of Technology.

Potential nuclear debris decays over time; therefore, it is critical to reduce the amount of time between collection and analysis.  “We might not observe some of the material signatures days later when the samples arrive at a national laboratory,” Dugan added.

To address this issue, Dugan received a research grant through AFIT’s Scientific Test and Analysis Techniques Center of Excellence from the Department of Homeland Security to determine if samples collected by Soldiers could be tested on site to identify nuclear signatures that may have decayed to a daughter isotope prior to national laboratory analysis.

That data-collection process is something Dugan is very familiar with having served as the nuclear disablement team chief for the 20th Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Explosives Command.  Her relationship enabled her and two students to partner with the 20th CBRNE’s Nuclear Disablement Team 3 on a training mission at the Nevada National Security Site in October. 

“We took a handheld XRF, which is a fluorescent spectrometer and we took a handheld LIBS, which is a laser induced breakdown spectrometer, and we wanted to research the feasibility of radionuclide field confirmation on these portable detectors,” Dugan said. 

Army Maj. Christopher Sutphin, a nuclear engineering master’s student, is working with 1st Lt. Ashwin Rao, an AFIT doctoral student, to complete the data analytics on the samples.

"The operational goal is to give commanders as close to real-time assessment and recommendations of a radiological hazard.  While we are focused on homeland security, the equipment and evaluation process can be extended to the ready force and emergency response in the future," Sutphin said.

Rao said he’s used these portable devices for research over the last three-and-a-half years but never had the opportunity to evaluate the, in an operational setting.

“It was amazing to finally be able to apply these analytical devices in the field on real nuclear debris at these historic test sites,” he said.  “As students, being able to translate research to a practical military environment helps bridge the gap between academia and the operational world."

The opportunity to combine real world military operational activities with educational research is a unique advantage to AFIT’s programs. 

“The benefits of an AFIT education is twofold applicable,” Dugan said.  “First, an AFIT education enhances one’s critical thinking, or the ability to think outside the box.  Secondly, as a military leader, it is important to have a technical background. Understanding both the operational world and scientific community helps me improve the Soldiers and Airmen’s ‘fighting positions’.  Finally, it’s a real special niche to be able to communicate effectively to both the warfighter and the scientific community.”