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NEWS | April 21, 2021

Prominent Hunt 21-1 interagency exercise prepares for nuclear detonation scenario

By Clemens Gaines 20th CBRNE Command

Soldiers from the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives Command’s Nuclear Disablement Team 1, and the 48th Chemical Brigade’s 46th CBRNE Company, joined representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Army Reserve Aviation Command and the Air Force Technical Application Center to conduct the Prominent Hunt 21-1 exercise April 5-9 in Phoenix, Ariz.

The purpose of this interagency exercise is to assemble the National Technical Nuclear Forensics, Ground Collection Task Force to practice and validate their operational response readiness, in the event of a terrorist-initiated nuclear detonation anywhere in the United States or abroad.

PH 21-1 required evaluation of the command’s GCTF and its capability to efficiently mobilize, deploy, plan, collect material and debris samples, while also processing and preparing samples for transport to designated analytical laboratories in a post-detonation environment.

This exercise is part of a series of regularly scheduled biannual exercises by the U.S. government which have been conducted since 2012. Prominent Hunt 21-1 was not conducted in response to any ongoing world events.

NDT Soldiers and their support vehicles deployed via a C-17 Globemaster directly from Phillips Army Airfield, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., as opposed to Dover Air Force Base, to demonstrate of the capability to deploy from home station in a timely manner.

The NTNF GCTF was under evaluation by the 20th CBRNE Command and the Department of Defense’s Deputy Task Force Leader is Lt. Col. Darrell Stepter.

“In recent months, the team completed two weeks of academic classes and a field exercise to collect debris at a Department of Energy site,” Stepter said. “Prominent Hunt 21-1 validated this training and demonstrated that the 20th CBRNE Command Soldiers can quickly deploy and conduct ground collection missions in support of the FBI, the lead federal agency.”

Tim Pickle, Forensic Operations Specialist, FBI Laboratory Division, shared, “We chose the Phoenix area as a neutral site for this exercise. It is a realistic location for Prominent Hunt. The roadways here are laid out in a grid pattern which made it easier to select locations for the collection team missions.”

There was a simulated nuclear explosion site, in which there was a downwind contamination field that was considered to be a crime scene. Exercise operational planners utilized computer models, developed by the Department of Energy, to simulate factors such as the local wind, temperature and other conditions to predict the fallout from a nuclear event. The model also displayed the left and right limits for the probable contamination plume which is the likely area of contamination.

At the center of every Prominent Hunt exercise is the four-person ground collection team, which consists of two Soldiers, one FBI representative and a DOE technician. The team is dispatched to collect nuclear debris samples from the nuclear event. From the Forward Operating Base (FOB), mission planners selected the location and the ground collection teams used GPS and local maps to travel on unfamiliar urban and suburban areas.

For each collection mission, a forward contamination control line is established on the edge of the contamination plume. Members of NDT1 would then enter the contamination area from this location and exit from the same location with the sample and perform a safety check to ensure all members are clear of contamination.

At each of the four collection point missions in PH 21-1, a Soldier from the 46th CBRNE Company used a modified hand vacuum to collect nuclear debris into a container under the supervision of an FBI agent.

This debris is now evidence in the investigation, and the FBI representative takes the container to initiate the chain of custody process. From this and other collected evidence, scientists use nuclear forensics to determine the source of the nuclear materials for attribution.

All ground collection team members wore full-body personal protective equipment and checked each other for any rips or tears before, during and after each mission. This included wearing protective boots and gloves that were taped at the ankle and wrist as further protection against possible contamination.

The operational stress on Prominent Hunt 21-1 participants included continual evaluation at every step from pre-deployment through the final mission by another nuclear disablement team. These observer/controllers were essential to ensure and certify that an NDT team is ready for its mission.

Additionally, the 20th CBRNE Command’s Soldiers received support from the ARAC with two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

These helicopters flew several missions over the Phoenix area and were modified to carry the Airborne Radiation Detection and Identification Measurement System that provided a unique capability to detect radiation on the ground.

“PH 21-1 showed that we are ready to serve on the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Ground Collection Task Force for six months beginning June 1,” said Stepter. “Once we assume the mission, we will be on a very short recall notice so we can quickly respond if needed.”