Cadets gain experience during radiation detection exercise

By Lt. Col. Keith McManus Assistant Professor of Nuclear Engineering

November 29th, 2018 | News, News and Features
 Class of 2019 Cadet Maxwell Mueller attempts to identify the radioactive source after his teammates initially used larger equipment to detect the presence of a source.  Photo by Class of 2022 Cadet Frank Flores
  A Filipino villager, played by Class of 2020 Cadet Jesson Penaflor, shares his knowledge of suspicious shipping casks being stored in the village with Class of 2019 Cadet Reniel dela Cruz.  Both are exchange cadets from the Philippines. Photo by Class of 2022 Cadet Frank Flores

Thirty nuclear engineering majors and minors from the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering participated in an Applied Radiation Detection Exercise at the Aachen MOUT site on Nov. 1.
Cadets in NE452, the nuclear instrumentation and shielding course, were required to participate in the exercise as part of a laboratory requirement for the course.
They organized themselves into search elements and volunteer leaders developed hasty plans for four scenarios.
Teams had to choose the proper detection gear for the scenario, conduct pre-mission equipment and radio checks and develop a plan for the actions they would take on each objective.
The detachment commander, Class of 2019 Cadet Andrew Solomonides, and his team chiefs, Class of 2019 Cadets Hollis Shoptaw and Mitchell Brown, briefed their plans to Col. Mark Weathers, the USMA G3, prior to each team moving down range with their selected radiation detection equipment.
The Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering also provided the use of a Polaris MRZR, which was employed for ultra-light ground tactical movement as well as to simulate constrained air insertion where seating is limited.
In addition to the cadets, several other groups participated in the event. Members of the West Point Fire Department HAZMAT team visited the site to observe training and see the advance radiation detectors.
Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and a USMA-bound student studying at UC Berkeley tested and demonstrated scene data fusion (SDF) onboard an unmanned ground vehicle on loan from the USMA Robotics Research Center. SDF combines gamma-ray data with location data acquired by visual and LiDAR sensors to create a 3D map of the radiation field.
During the after action review, cadets stated how much they appreciated the legitimacy of the scenarios, the access to advanced radiation detection equipment on loan from DTRA Contingency Operations Department, the use of the Polaris MRZR and the chance to execute hasty planning under ambiguous conditions.
Additionally, the use of role players speaking foreign languages and the requirement to don tactical gear down range added to the realism and depth of the exercise.
The recommendations for improvement will be incorporated in to next year’s event and should give cadets more hands-on time and possibly involve other entities such as the Department of Military Instruction, the Department of Foreign Languages and maybe even the Army West Point Grill Club.
“This was by far the best practical exercise that I have participated in in my time as a cadet,” Class of 2019 Cadet Maxwell Mueller said after the exercise. “This detection exercise gave us the opportunity to apply academic knowledge in real-world scenarios. The ability to use detectors that we have studied in class truly gave us perspective and insight not only into nuclear engineering, but also the complex counter-WMD missions that the military encounters.”
Lt. Col. Keith McManus, the course instructor and deputy program director, based the scenarios loosely on historical incidents involving radiological or nuclear material. The first scenario involved an informant with knowledge of terrorists with ties to Abu Sayyaf that were trafficking special nuclear material.
He employed Class of 2020 Cadet Jesson Penaflor, an exchange cadet from the Philippines majoring in nuclear engineering, as an informant and allowed him to speak only Filipino. The search team adjusted quickly and tasked Class of 2019 Cadet Reniel dela Cruz to head down range to translate.
A plutonium-shipping container with Cyrillic markings provided by the DTRA Nuclear Science and Engineering Center (NSERC) was loaded with sources that mimicked plutonium well enough to cause a medium resolution detector to alert the user to the suspected presence of plutonium.
Since no plutonium was actually present, this provided a teaching opportunity regarding false positives and techniques to improve data collection.
The second scenario was based on an actual incident that took place in Iraq in late 2003. Two large activity sources were mistakenly taken when looters removed large poles from a radiological testing site for use in their villages for field irrigation.
McManus used a Quick Erect Antenna Mast (QUEM) on loan from the Logistics Readiness Center to simulate the large pole and secured a source of nearly 1 curie in the end.
Cadets were told that an individual reported to a nearby hospital with signs of radiation sickness and interviewed a neighbor played by Class of 2020 Cadet Demar Gale, a nuclear engineering major, who only spoke Arabic.
The team had to find the source, estimate its activity and determine the limits of the radiation area where it was safe for public access until the source could be properly shielded and removed.
The third scenario used the Urban Assault Course (UAC) Station’s four multi-story building as a former nuclear research facility. The commander sought to use it as his headquarters for the multi-month mission of surveying the nearby nuclear infrastructure.
Cadets were required to determine if the building was safe to occupy. Teams identified and mitigated a dozen sources located throughout the building.
The fourth scenario involved sources that were known to be missing from an inventory of a facility and were suspected of being hid in nearby tunnels. The UAC tunnel complex was used and three sources of varying strength and energy were placed in the tunnel system.
Cadets had to think through the size and configuration of the detection systems they chose, while still meeting the requirements to detect, locate and identify the sources.