Friday, January 16, 2009

Nuclear Issues: U.S. government’s secret nuclear bomb squad evaluated more than 100 nuclear extortion threats and incidents between 1974 and 1996

The U.S. government’s secret nuclear bomb squad evaluated more than 100 nuclear extortion threats and incidents between 1974 and 1996 but only a dozen required actual deployments (the others were hoaxes), according to the new book, Defusing Armageddon, and key primary sources posted today in the National Security Archive's "Nuclear Vault" by Archive senior fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson. (

The Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) had the capacity in 1996 of deploying up to 600 people and over 150 tons of equipment to an incident site, but all deployments to that point had been much smaller (a maximum of 45 people), according to the documents. A subsequent Web posting will cover the NEST from 1997 through the present.

Managed by the Nevada Operations Office of the Department of Energy (and its predecessors), NEST drew personnel from key national laboratories – Los Alamos, Sandia, Livermore – and their contractors. On an everyday basis NEST personnel worked in a multitude of areas – including weapons design, diagnostics, health physics, and information technology – and were called into action for exercises or actual deployments.

Today’s posting of twenty-four documents includes, but is not limited to: national intelligence estimates on the threat of clandestine attack, the directive resulting in the creation of NEST, examples of extortion letters and the psycholinguistic analysis of such letters, accounts of NEST participation in the effort to locate the remains of a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite that crashed into the Canadian wilderness in 1978, documents concerning the controversial 1994 MIRAGE GOLD exercise and its aftermath, and briefing material concerning NEST’s mission as well as its human and technical capabilities.

The documents were obtained by Archive Senior Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson while conducting research for his new book, Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad.

The Nuclear Emergency Search Team, 1974-1996
Edited by Jeffrey T. Richelson

In May 1974 the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a letter demanding that $200,000 be left at a particular location or a nuclear bomb would be detonated somewhere in Boston. In response to the threat William Chambers, a physicist with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, was instructed to assemble a team of scientists and technical personnel to travel to Boston and search for the allegedly hidden device.

While the threat did result in the formation of a team – the Nuclear Emergency Search Team – consisting of personnel from key national laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia) and their contractors, it was not the beginning of U.S. concern with stolen, lost, or concealed nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the U.S. Intelligence Community explored the motivations and capabilities of the Soviet Union and China to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States as well as U.S. vulnerabilities.

The U.S. Air Force also experienced a number of accidents involving aircraft, including B-52s, armed with nuclear weapons. There was a crash at Palomares, Spain in February 1966, as well as one at Thule, Iceland in January 1968. Both resulted in extensive efforts to locate personnel and debris. The effort that followed the Thule crash, designated CRESTED ICE, was the subject of a Strategic Air Command history and included the use of nuclear detection equipment to locate radioactive debris.

During the Nixon administration there was also concern about the threat posed to reactors, which resulted in a study concerning the status of domestic safeguards of nuclear material. In a subsequent national security directive, national security adviser Kissinger notes Nixon’s special concern with the threat of sabotage, plutonium contamination, and armed attacks by terrorists.

The rushed, ad hoc, response to the threat to Boston, resulted in a directive to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Operations Office that assigned the office responsibility for search and detection operations. In response to the directive the office established the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST). Personnel chosen for NEST would still keep their positions in weapons design, diagnostics, or other areas but would participate in exercises and agree to deploy in the event of a real crisis. Some would also help design detection equipment for NEST personnel in the field.

In subsequent years NEST personnel deployed to a number of major and smaller cities in the United States in response to nuclear extortion threats. A deployment to Los Angeles in late 1975 was triggered by an extortion letter transmitted to the president of the Union Oil Corporation. Another deployment followed in 1979 when an employee of a General Electric plant in Wilmington, North Carolina removed some low-enriched uranium and threatened to send vials of it to activist organizations and news outlets if he did not receive the payment demanded.

One element of the NEST response was to examine the threatening communication for clues about the extortionist and to assess the credibility of the threat. A number of assessments were conducted in the Wilmington case, including at least one by Syracuse University psycholinguist and NEST consultant Murray Miron. Often the initial credibility assessments resulted in the conclusion that no NEST response was necessary.

In other instances NEST was deployed or was near deployment in response to the reentry of nuclear-powered Soviet or Russian satellites into the atmosphere. When the remains of a Soviet satellite crashed into the Canadian Northwest Territories in 1978, NEST personnel joined the search for any radioactive remains. While that was NEST’s first foreign deployment, it would not be its last. In June 1982, a joint memorandum signed by the Departments of Energy, Defense, and State that delineated the departments responsibility for responding to “malevolent nuclear incidents” overseas, with many of the Department of Energy’s responsibilities being NEST’s.

When not involved in actual deployments NEST personnel often participated in exercises, including “full-field exercises,” whose purpose was to test the response of NEST and other agencies involved in dealing with a nuclear incident (including the FBI , military, and Federal Emergency Management Agency). A key exercise in the 1980s was MIGHTY DERRINGER, held in Indianapolis in 1986. In October 1994, NEST, FBI, and other personnel participated in MIRAGE GOLD in New Orleans.

While the after-action report (Document 16) of the exercise was positive, a much less favorable view was held by Admiral Charles J. Beers Jr., the senior Energy department official directly responsible for NEST. Beers detailed his concerns in a January 1995 memo and “requested” an assessment team be assembled to review the NEST program. The extensive report was completed in July 1995.

While NEST has become more secretive about its activities since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was more open in the mid-1990s. One example of that openness was the briefing slides and associated text used in explaining NEST human and technical capabilities and activities to the press.

Source: National Security Archive
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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