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Small team, big responsibility

  • Published
  • By Jaima Fogg
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- When one thinks of radioactive material, images of Homer Simpson or the “Back to the Future” flux capacitor may come to mind.

At Wright-Patt, a team of four serve as subject matter experts on radioactive waste. Their job is less glamourous but much more important.

Air Force Radioactive Recycling and Disposal (AFRRAD) is the primary focal point for radioactive recycling and waste management in the Air Force.

“We handle all the Air Force's radioactive waste and all their mixed waste, which is radioactive and hazardous waste constituent,” said Chris Anthony, AFRRAD Program Director, “And we recycle. We do the recycling for DOD: smoke detectors, exit signs, compasses, krypton-85.”

Radioactive waste contains radioactive chemical elements that do not have a practical purpose. The main objective in managing and disposing of radioactive waste is to protect people and the environment.

Numerous incidents, accidents and violations in the 1980’s by DOD installations led to the development of the Low Level Radioactive Waste (LLRW) program. The LLRW program oversees the development of uniform policy and procedures and a DOD wide inventory of radioactive waste. The Army Industrial Operations Command is the designated executive agent for managing the disposal, control, guidance and records and reporting of the DOD LLRW. This provides the Air Force with annual funding to secure contracting mechanisms and radioactive waste brokers for shipments to waste consolidation facilities and disposal sites.

AFRRAD receives about 150 shipments per year of items that need recycling. A shipment can vary from one to more than 900 items. The radioactive material from each item is removed, properly packaged and recycled or disposed of. Items include, but are not limited, to compasses, exit signs, smoke detectors and electron tubes.

Smoke detectors contain americium-241. Exit signs, compasses and spot markers contain tritium. Electron tubes contain aerosol deionizers. Radiation detection instrument check sources or reference sources contain krypton-85. Tritium and krypton are gases and the disposal cost is extraordinary so it's cheaper to recycle it than it is to dispose of it.

In addition to receiving and recycling radioactive material at Wright-Patt, the team travels upwards of 100 days per year. They make regular trips to the Defense Logistics Agency at Robins AFB, Georgia and other locations that generate or collect large amounts of waste. They’ll also travel to other locations for large scale one-off projects. An upcoming trip is planned to the Nevada Test and Training Range at Nellis AFB where the AFRRAD team will assist the radiation safety officer with identifying and removing radioactive material from the Bradley fighting vehicles so that they can be used on the range.

During the site visits, the AFRRAD team identifies, sorts and organizes the commodities and makes them ready to ship for the radioactive waste brokers. These contracted brokers are hired to ship the waste off site to a processor or directly to a disposal site.

Safety of the installation and the public is top priority to the AFRRAD team.

“We're here to protect the public. And we protect the environment,” said Anthony. “For our facilities here, once a quarter, and we go around outside of this building and we do our surveys and we make sure that if an individual were to stand outside for 168 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year they will not exceed the radiation dose limits that the (Nuclear Regulatory Committee) prescribes for members of the general public.”