History of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute

The 1958 voluntary moratorium on aboveground nuclear weapons testing resulted in a need for a laboratory-based capability to simulate the prompt and delayed radiations from a nuclear detonation. This capability would serve as a means of corroborating and extending results obtained from field-based experiments as well as furnishing an opportunity to confirm proposed field tests. Up until this time many U.S. nuclear weapons tests included experiments to study the biological effects associated with ionizing radiation exposure.

In August 1958 the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery proposed to the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project [(AFSWP) now Defense Threat Reduction Agency] that a research facility be established at the National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) to meet this need.

The rationale for the establishment of AFRRI was based on two cold war ground realities of that time; one: the threat scenario of numerous Soviet infantry divisions overcoming the Fulda Gap defenses in West Germany and overtaking western Europe, and two: the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield by the NATO forces, particularly enhanced radiation weapons rich in neutron output, to halt such a massive assault from the Warsaw Pact countries.


President John F. Kennedy
Kennedy Letter


On May 12, 1961 the Department of Defense issued a directive and the then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara formally established the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI or “The Institute”) to conduct scientific research in the field of radiobiology in order to “preserve the health and performance of U.S. military personnel and to protect humankind through research that advances understanding of the effects of ionizing radiation”.

The following three paragraphs of the directive are quoted in their entirety:

  1. "The Institute shall serve primarily as radiobiology research laboratories for the Department of Defense. The National Institutes of Health, Atomic Energy Commission, and other federal and civilian institutions may utilize the laboratories as agreed upon by the Secretary of Defense or his designee."
  2. "The mission of the Institute shall he to conduct scientific research in the field of radiobiology and related matters that are essential to the support of the United States military services, to national welfare, and to the well-being of mankind."
  3. "Under Department of Defense policies, the Institute shall:

  1. Provide facilities for research on the biological effects of ionizing radiation.
  2. Conduct advanced training and educational programs.
  3. Provide facilities for radioisotope production.
  4. Perform such other functions as may he assigned."

On July 31, 1962 the Commanding Officer, National Naval Medical Center assumed military command of AFRRI. On September 1, 1964 the Director, Defense Atomic Support Agency [(DASA) previously AFSWP] assumed command and administrative control. AFRRI operated under DASA and its successor organizations until October 1, 1993 when AFRRI was realigned with the Uniformed Service University of the Health Sciences (USUHS).

Since its founding at the height of the cold war AFRRI has conducted basic and applied research with broad application to the field of radiation sciences. Core areas of study include prevention, assessment, and treatment of radiological injuries over a wide range of absorbed doses.

AFRRI is a Unique National Asset. It is U.S. Department of Defense’s only medical research and development facility dedicated to nuclear and radiological defense. The Institute’s touchstone research projects include biodosimetry, combined injury, internal contamination and metal toxicity, effects of low dose radiation, and radiation medical countermeasures development. It routinely collaborates with other military and government organizations in the arenas of civilian radiological-accident response and with NASA on the safety of astronauts exposed to cosmic radiation.

The Institute also has been a lodestone of all medical and radiobiological matters pertaining to radiological-nuclear incident response, maintaining a rapidly deployable team of radiation subject matter experts including physicians and physicists to support medical response and actions taken in military and civilian nuclear or radiological incidents either domestically or abroad. It trains military and civilian health care providers, disaster-preparedness personnel, and operational planners on the effects of ionizing radiation and the logistical and medical responses to radiation exposures.


AFRRI’s research was the basis for DoD's tactical nuclear battlefield human response limits (established in 1976) that are currently reflected in JP 3-11, “Operations in Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Environments”. Other significant research accomplishments include development and validation of prophylactic and therapeutic drugs such as Amifostine, Neupogen®, and Neulasta® all of which prevent and treat radiation injuries. AFRRI has also developed rapid, high-precision, biodosimetry tools ranging from novel assays to software decision support. New drug candidates and biological dose assessment technologies are being developed currently.

This research is supported by unique and unmatched radiation sources, generators and radiation physics staff that allow comprehensive analyses across the various radiation types, qualities, absorbed dose rates and absorbed doses. These include:

  • high- and low-level 60Co facilities,
  • mixed neutron and γ-ray research reactor,
  • clinical linear accelerator with imaging capabilities, and
  • small animal radiation research platform with imaging capabilities.


Some of AFRRI’s significant operational activities and accomplishments include:

  • Led an effort with VA and CDC to investigate a possible relationship between participation in a U.S. nuclear test and later development of cancer. This effort led to the establishment of DoD’s Nuclear Test Personnel Review (NTPR) program in 1977, which continues to support VA and DOJ radiogenic disease compensation claims.
  • Served as part of an International Site Restoration Assistance Team following the 1986 Chernobyl reactor fire in the Ukraine.
  • Received the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Meritorious Unit Award on February 17, 2004 for its exceptionally meritorious achievements from September 11, 2001 to June 20, 2003 in response to acts of terrorism and nuclear/radiological threats at home and abroad.
  • Designated as nuclear historic landmark in 2009 by the American Nuclear Society as the United States’ primary source of medical nuclear and radiological research, preparedness, and training.
  • Responded to the Fukushima Daiichi reactor incident in March 2011 as part of Operation Tomodachi ensuring the safety of U.S. service members, family members, and civilians and supported the humanitarian relief in a coordinated effort with the Government of Japan.

In today’s complex international security environment, non-state actors may attempt to detonate radiation dispersal devices a.k.a dirty bombs or improvised nuclear devices in major urban centers. Near-peer adversaries or hostile state actors may use tactical or low yield nuclear weapons in a battlespace against the US and its allies. A nuclear weapon detonated in earth’s low orbit by a near peer adversary can create a massive electromagnetic pulse rendering the electronic equipment ineffective on an unimaginable scale. This clear and present danger needs our immediate attention and preparation; and AFRRI proudly stands ready as the frontline foot soldier in the radiological defense of the nation for 60 years.