After the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq, WMD-E (Weapons of Mass Destruction – Elimination) forces furiously scoured suspected WMD production sites in hopes of finding “smoking gun” evidence of WMD activity. One site after the next turned up frustratingly little information, and the investigation quickly contested significant aspects of initial intelligence estimates. In the meantime, an unexpected mission became apparent. Military units occupying terrain on the battlefield began reporting positive readings on their radioactive detectors. The nuclear disablement team, who was assembled largely to inventory materials at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Complex, was employed to respond to the reports. Using lead and scrap metal found in country, they built improvised containers to shield radioisotopes for transport and storage.1 A short time later, the IAEA produced a list of declared radioactive sources throughout the country and the full scale of the orphaned source problem started to become clear. Thousands of radioactive isotopes that had previously been used for peaceful purposes were abandoned and subject to looting and displacement at the onset of hostilities. The Department of Defense (DOD) had already been assembling a team from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), Department of Energy (DOE), and civilian contractors who entered theater shortly after the nuclear disablement team. DOE was immensely helpful as they provided expertise and shipped shielding containers into theater as fast as they could find them. All of this was done amid litigation procedures with civilian contractors, supply shortages, and ongoing hostilities. By the end of June 2004, they had collected 1,400 radiological sources and left around 700 in place that were judged as being adequately guarded and properly used.2 Why the “R” is different So how did this happen? Although the DOD had been singularly focused on the traditional Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) weapons and infrastructure that had previously shaped military operations, radiologic sources have proliferated simply due to their usefulness in a modern society. While several sources were tied to previous uranium fuel cycle projects and other military objectives, most of them came from civilian industry, completely independent of any military purpose. Of the 2,100 sources identified, about 450 of them were lightning arrestors, a radioactive source placed on the top of lightning rods that were believed to enhance the attraction of lightning.3 The lightning rods were popular targets for looters because they contained copper wire. When the copper was harvested, it could dislodge the radiologic source and leave it exposed to the environment.4 Sources were also found in oil exploration activities, such as a ground density surveillance and radiography for welded equipment components. They were used in agriculture to preserve food and measure moisture density. They were also used in the nuclear medicine field as biological tracers and in radionuclide therapy to treat certain types of cancer and blood disorders. Unlike the rest of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) threats, radiologic sources have found widespread use in non-military applications. There are dual use facilities, equipment, and precursor ingredients that can be used to mask NBC activity. Those can be used for both peaceful and military purposes, but once the weapons-grade chemicals, biological agents, or special nuclear materials are created, there are very few legitimate peaceful uses for it. However, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a developed society to have access to a number of radioactive sources to enhance their daily lives. However, the peaceful use of such sources takes nothing away from their military significance, should they fall into the wrong hands. A radiologic dispersal device (conventional explosives attached to a source designed to spread radioactive contamination) created from an industrial source is just as effective as material from the nuclear weapons fuel cycle. Thus, all radioactive sources become militarily relevant at the onset of combat operations. Shifting Responsibility One of the major shifts between Desert Storm (1991) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) was the role that the U.S., and specifically the DOD, played in the WMD-E mission in the aftermath of major combat operations. In Desert Storm, the disarming activities took place after a cease-fire agreement under U.N. control.5 However, OIF WMD-E tasks (which included collection and transport of orphaned sources) took place during ongoing hostilities before, during, and after the handover to the Coalition Provisional Authority that took place in June 2004.6 Consequently, DOD found itself in a position as the lead agency to manage radiological sources scattered throughout the battlespace, a mission it was not sufficiently prepared to execute. The agency lacked trained personnel, packaging equipment, and historical doctrine as the task had never previously fallen under their guidance. DOD planners must have a reasonable expectation of coordinating disarmament in future combat theaters. Furthermore, with regard to orphaned sources, WMD-E activities will be necessary in countries that don’t even have or are pursuing WMDs. In future theaters of war, if the U.S. wants to avoid looting, diversion, and public exposure to radioactive isotopes in the environment, military units will need to be required to take custody of orphaned sources when discovered. Undertaking this process could be a massive encumbrance as land-based units maneuver to seize the initiative. A streamlined process of identifying, characterizing, packaging, and transferring control for orphaned sources is essential to maintaining operational tempo of the ground war. It is in DODs best interest to develop a robust capability within its own formations to avoid the interagency issues, indemnification problems with private companies, and equipment shortfalls that plagued OIF. The public will likely be intolerant of the mishandling of radioisotopes in any theater of war the U.S. finds itself in the future. Orphaned sources that should be under U.S. custodial responsibility could incidentally injure the native population or be used in terrorist activities. This is a situation the U.S. needs to avoid, and the majority of the responsibility falls squarely on the DOD. It is incumbent on military planners to continually assess and resource their ability to eliminate orphaned sources in support of large scale military operations across a vast geographic area, as the next war will undoubtedly be shaped by their presence. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the views or policy of the Department of Defense or Defense Threat Reduction Agency. FootnotesBrent Braderhoft, Interview with Nuclear Disablement Team Operations Officer, (Telephone Interview, 2018)Gene Aloise, Radiological Sources in Iraq: DoD should Evaluate its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions (Government Accountability Office Report, 2005)Aloise, Radiological Sources in Iraq: DoD should Evaluate its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions.Braderhoft, Interview with Nuclear Disablement Team Operations Officer, (2018)Rebecca K.C. Hersman, Eliminating Adversary Weapons of Mass Destruction: What’s at Stake? (Washington D.C., National Defense University Press, 2004)Aloise, Radiological Sources in Iraq: DoD should Evaluate its Source Recovery Effort and Apply Lessons Learned to Future Recovery Missions.