The U.S. Air Force Helped Get Radioactive Waste Out of Mexico
Dangerous material has a habit of falling into the wrong hands
Who do you call if you want to get rid of some radioactive waste? If you’re Mexico, you call the U.S. Air Force.
In August, the Air Force announced that a C-17 transport plane had flown to an unspecified airfield in southern Mexico to retrieve two worn out irradiators. The flying branch did not say when the team, which also included representatives from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Agriculture, had actually conducted the mission.
An official Air Force news story did offer other details:
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, the 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 Department of Energy 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.
While the secretive mission was a complicated and challenging choice, Mexican authorities no doubt wanted to avoid any chance of the material falling into the wrong hands. In December 2013, thieves stole a truck that happened to be carrying a small amount of the radioactive isotope cobalt 60.
More than a year later, another radiological theft made international headlines. Enterprising criminals lifted a container full of iridium 192 off another truck after the drivers left the vehicle to take a break. After that incident, the Washington Post highlighted the unusual trend:
The same strange and very specific crime story keeps repeating itself in Mexico: Car thieves steal a load of dangerous radioactive material without knowing what they’ve taken, setting off a brief public health scare and a scramble to find the goods. For at least the third time in the past year and a half, Mexican authorities late Wednesday were warning that pilfered hazmats were on the loose.
Hence why the NNSA is getting involved. Part of the administration’s job is to help contain the spread of nuclear materials around the globe, including high- and low-enriched uranium and plutonium, which is potentially more dangerous.
The Government Accountability Office published a report earlier in September on these efforts:
Specifically, from April 2009 through December 2013, GAO’s analysis of DOE’s records found that DOE exceeded its goal for removing or disposing of 1,201 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium by more than 400 kilograms, and it exceeded its goal of downblending (i.e., mixing HEU with either depleted or natural uranium, or low-enriched uranium (LEU), to produce a new product that has a lower concentration of uranium-235) 2,700 kilograms of HEU by an additional 2,200 kilograms. However, it missed its goal for providing physical protection upgrades at 43 buildings by 11 buildings and missed its goal of converting 34 foreign reactors to more proliferation-resistant LEU by 11 reactors. DOE officials said that political challenges, including access to key sites, and technical concerns such as delays in the development of LEU replacement fuels for certain high-performing nuclear reactors, complicated its efforts to achieve these goals.
That’s good news. If crime continues to be a problem, NNSA likely won’t have any trouble working with Mexico to retrieve radioactive materials in the future.