Mobility Airmen Recover Radiological Material from Mexico

A C-17 Globemaster III from 4th Airlift Squadron at McChord Field, Washington transports three Husman irradiators to the United State for re. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
A C-17 Globemaster III from 4th Airlift Squadron at McChord Field, Washington transports three Husman irradiators to the United State for re. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Headquarters Air Mobility Command, in close partnership with the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration recently executed a C-17 Globemaster III mission to repatriate three Husman irradiators containing radioactive material from Mexico to the United States for final disposition.

One of the NNSA's primary missions focuses on nonproliferation efforts and they work closely with a wide range of international partners and key U.S. federal agencies to detect, secure and dispose of dangerous nuclear and radiological material.

According to an NNSA press release, the irradiators were provided to Mexico by the U.S. more than 30 years ago and have played a critical role in the eradication of a devastating livestock parasite, the screwworm. At the time of their removal, the three irradiators contained more than 50,000 curies of cesium-137, a high-activity radioisotope that could be used by terrorists or other nefarious organizations to construct a radiological dispersal device.

Due to irradiator's significant size and weight — over 16,000 pounds each — a comprehensive plan was required to remove the items from the operating facility, transport them to a nearby airfield and properly configure them for air transport. For nearly a year prior to mission execution, Senior Master Sgt. Toby McKnight and Master Sgt. Kim Fabian from AMC 's Nuclear Airlift Operations Division, provided the NNSA, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, critical subject matter expertise regarding various aspects of the logistics operation.

"The NNSA sought out AMC's Nuclear Airlift Branch and specifically McKnight and Fabian due to their C-17 experience preparing and transporting nuclear, nuclear-related, and sensitive cargo," said Maj. Anthony Cappel, HQ AMC Nuclear Airlift Operations deputy chief. "With a combined 23 years of loadmaster experience, their unique credentials transporting sensitive material made them indispensable subject matter experts to the repatriation effort."

To ensure the irradiators would be transported safely and legally, McKnight and Fabian augmented DOE-led teams on two separate site visits to develop the plans, coordinate international agreements, and review host-nation support material and capabilities. Among their many contributions, they designed a cargo preparation and tie-down plan and ultimately secured a special cargo certification by the Air Transportability Test Load Agency for air transport.

Despite a myriad of challenges, the DOE-led team worked closely together and kept the mission on track. Fabian and McKnight helped coordinate equipment and an aircraft. A C-17 Globemaster III mission was tasked by the 618th Air Operations Center at Scott AFB, Illinois and flown by the 4th Airlift Squadron at McChord Field, Washington.

"Although, the irradiators were not classified as nuclear-related material, the 4th AS was tasked with the mission due to the units' experience transporting sensitive material," said Fabian.

The 4th AS aircrew transported the material from an airfield in Southern Mexico to an Air Force base in the United States. The shipment was then securely transferred to a permanent storage facility.

"We all understood that removing these items to a secure U.S. location was a top DOE and NNSA priority," said McKnight. "This mission was truly a Joint and Inter-Agency effort. I feel fortunate to have worked with such an amazing team to accomplish something so important for our national defense."

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