AFRRI Marks 60 Years as Unique National Asset

A man in a lab coat standing in front of big machinery

By Dillon Parker

“I believe the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than during the Cold War.” -- William J. Perry, 19th U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI), celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021, is responsible for advising and assisting commanders in preserving and protecting the health and performance of U.S. military personnel operating in radiologically contaminated battle spaces and urban environments. Through research, education, and operational training, AFRRI advances the understanding of the effects of ionizing radiation and develops medical countermeasures in line with 21st century national security threats. 

A man stands in front of the Joint Personal Dosimeter machine
Navy Lt. Aure Stewart, a researcher with AFRRI's Military
Medical Operations department, tests the accuracy and
precision of the Joint Personal Dosimeter in the Radiation
Sciences department's Linear Accelerator Facility. This
dosimeter provides a record of a servicemember's
radiation dose from occupational to tactical levels,
information that is critical to military physicians
considering use of medical countermeasures developed
by AFRRI. (Courtesy photo)
AFRRI, a part of Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), is a tri-service entity created in 1961, with the mission of carrying out the medical radiological defense research program at the height of the Cold War. AFRRI has been instrumental in responding to nuclear threats around the world and pushing the field of radiation sciences forward in the last 60 years as the United States’ primary source of military-relevant medical radiological research, preparedness, and training. 

AFRRI was established because of the threat of the massive Soviet armies pouring through the Fulda Gap and overtaking Western Europe during the Cold War.  

“NATO forces had to figure out how they might be able to use battlefield nuclear weapons to stop that massive assault, as well as how defending troops could protect themselves if they became the victims of nuclear devices,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Mohammad Naeem, director of AFRRI.  

The Cold War-centered mission continued for several decades after the institute’s creation. 

“The ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were the boom of AFRRI,” said Naeem. “It had about 300 individuals and was packed with scientists and doctors. Then in 1992, the Soviet Union fell apart and with the end of the cold war, AFRRI’s mission and survival became a topic of discussion by the top military brass and it was realigned with the USU.”

Despite the end of the cold war and the decline of the Soviet Union, AFRRI’s mission remains just as essential today as it was in the 1960s, said Naeem.

“I think after 60 years, we have come back to the same mission,” said Naeem. “The threat is either the same or increased; there’s another gap in Europe that’s similar to the Fulda Gap called the Suwalki Gap, and United States is once again facing the great power competition with near-peer adversaries possessing sophisticated and highly advanced nuclear capabilities.”

The radiological threats of today extend beyond nuclear weapons to “dirty bombs,” low-dose radiation, and toxic metal contamination, added Naeem.

“Dirty bombs  are traditional explosive devices attached to stolen or orphaned radioactive sources that disperse radiation into an area,” said Naeem. “The potential exists today for non-state actors to detonate one of these dirty bombs in a major urban center, and we need to be prepared to respond. We can help determine when it might be safe to reenter the area, and how to treat those at the scene.”

Two men sit at a console desk.
Harry Spence and Dale Tomlinson, both scientists
at AFRRI, conduct research at the reactor console
in 2007. (Courtesy Photo)
To combat today’s threats AFRRI focuses on three areas: research, education, and operational training.
On the research side, there are five main areas of focus: low-dose radiation, biodosimetry or radiation injury diagnostics, radiation-trauma combined injury, toxic metal exposure, and radiation countermeasures. AFRRI’s infrastructure, including its research nuclear reactor and other radiation facilities, can simulate the immediate radiation effects of a nuclear detonation, radiation effects of nuclear fallout and long term radiation effects in a post-nuclear detonation zone weeks to months. 

“AFRRI is a leader in radiological research, and we also have teams dedicated to worldwide education and emergency response,” said Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Lien Senchak, AFRRI’s military medical operations (MMO) department chief. “Some of the specific field research we’re currently conducting focuses on the effects of electromagnetic pulse on medical equipment, thermal resistance of military uniforms, hands- free radiation detection devices and testing materials for dry decontamination in cold weather.”

AFRRI has been essential in the development of therapeutic drugs, which limit and treat radiation injuries, as well as high-precision biodosimetry tools ranging from novel assays to software programs. AFRRI’s researchers like Senchak and her colleague, Dr. William F. Blakely, a senior scientist who has helped develop multi-parameter biodosimetry models and radiation risk assessment tools, were instrumental in many of these accomplishments.

Scientists at AFRRI are focused on transitioning this kind of research into education and operational training by working synergistically with their MMO department. 

“MMO serves as the operational and applications arm of AFRRI, applying research and expertise to real-world problems,” said Blakely. “The biodosimetry group collaborated with MMO to prepare several guidance documents for the assessment of radiation-related injuries. Recently we’re also involved in the creation of a radiation risk communication tool, a one-page document to assist commanders in the field in communicating the risk of operating in a potential radiation environment.”

The department provides these education and training tools for students and leaders not only at USU, but around the world. 

Two men oversee a training exercise - there are two people in protective suits walking across a field.
Cmdr. Phil Liotta and Dr. Bob Woodruff, both scientists at AFRRI, work as evaluators during a national level nuclear weapons accident exercise at
Submarine Base Kings Bay, GA. (Courtesy photo)

“Understanding of radiation is pretty limited in the medical community and outside of people who specialize in the field,” said Senchak. “It's important for people in the medical field to be educated on early symptoms of radiation exposure so that they can triage patients. We have a team that goes throughout the world and trains medical professionals on the health effects of acute radiation injury, how to treat radiation injuries, and how to detect radiation and other harmful substances.”

MMO also provides rapidly deployable response teams that have addressed a variety of situations throughout the world such as the Fukushima reactor meltdown and the anthrax attacks in 2001, and stand ready to address new threats as they arise. The department assists NATO and other international organizations with readiness exercises and educational materials as well. 

Senchak, Blakely, and their colleagues take pride in tackling this critical mission, and thoroughly enjoy conducting research at an institution with such clear ties between science and real-world solutions.

“As a young scientist looking for a place to serve in my career I was attracted to AFRRI because it had critical resources like personnel from every military service, civilian scientists, relevant sources, dosimetry support, and cutting edge research technology,” said Blakely. “It has been a wonderful experience in my last 38 years to work at AFRRI and contribute to the enhancement of medical readiness to respond to a potential radiological incident. I highly recommend others to join us and contribute in our mission to preserve the health and performance of U.S. military personnel and protect humankind through research that advances understanding of the effects of ionizing radiation.”