Nuclear Emergency Support Team
The Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), a Department of Energy team, is "the National Nuclear Security Administration’s program for preparing and equipping specialized response teams to deal with the technical aspects of nuclear or radiological terrorism. NEST capabilities include search and identification of nuclear materials, diagnostics and assessment of suspected nuclear devices, technical operations in support of render safe procedures, and packaging for transport to final disposition. ... Their mission is to provide specialized technical expertise to the Federal response in resolving nuclear or radiological terrorist incidents."
A "nuclear surveillance program" begun in early 2002 "has been run by the FBI and the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST)," David E. Kaplan reported in the December 22, 2005, U.S. News & World Report.
"In search of a terrorist nuclear bomb, the federal government since 9/11 has run a far-reaching, top secret program to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities," Kaplan wrote. "In numerous cases, the monitoring required investigators to go on to the property under surveillance, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained, according to those with knowledge of the program. Some participants were threatened with loss of their jobs when they questioned the legality of the operation, according to these accounts."
"Federal officials familiar with the program maintain that warrants are unneeded for the kind of radiation sampling the operation entails, but some legal scholars disagree. News of the program comes in the wake of revelations last week that, after 9/11, the Bush White House approved electronic surveillance of U.S. targets by the National Security Agency without court orders. These and other developments suggest that the federal government's domestic spying programs since 9/11 have been far broader than previously thought," Kaplan wrote.
"Among those said to be briefed on the monitoring program" were: Vice President Dick Cheney; Michael D. Brown, who was then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and Richard A. Clarke, "then a top counterterrorism official at the National Security Council," Kaplan wrote.
NEST in 2002: Surveillance
In January 2002, the Bush administration "quietly ordered NEST to launch periodic searches for a 'dirty bomb' in Washington and other large U.S. cities," Douglas Weller reported March 11, 2002, in TIME. Administration officials told TIME "that the NEST teams aren't dispatched to urban areas because of any specific threat received. Instead, almost every week the FBI randomly selects several cities for visits by NEST, which comprises some 300 scientists and technicians from Energy and nuclear-weapons laboratories trained in finding and dismantling terrorist nuclear devices."
"A team of six or fewer NEST scientists covertly prowls areas, such as docks in a coastal town, that local authorities consider likeliest to have hidden contraband. Some NEST agents drive in unmarked vans packed with sophisticated gamma and neutron detectors that sniff for radiation emissions. Others travel on foot with the detectors concealed in briefcases, backpacks or even beer coolers. NEST was in Salt Lake ... deploying its equipment at the Olympics," Weller wrote.
"Explosive-ordnance-disposal experts with the Joint Special Operations Command are on call to fly in and assist the scientists in taking apart anything they find, but so far, NEST has turned up nothing in the searches. Administration officials admit that, just like putting sky marshals on airliners to foil potential hijackers, sending the NEST teams out is a shot in the dark. 'But it's better than having them sitting at home doing nothing,' says one," Weller wrote.
In addition to "helicopter patrols, teams have been driving around urban areas in vans known as 'Hot Spot Mobile Labs', armed with instruments that detect alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron radiation. Other teams are equipped with backpacks that hold smaller detectors," Fred Kaplan wrote in the June 9, 2002, Boston Globe. In October 2002, "when intelligence agencies warned that a 'dirty bomb' might be placed in lower Manhattan, NEST technicians stood with FBI agents and police, waving hand-held hazardous-material detectors across the thousands of trucks that were stopped and searched."
Although things "relaxed" following the October 2002 "scare", Kaplan wrote, "one official said NEST units still go on random, weekly search missions in different cities, focusing on ports, warehouse districts, and other locations where a smuggled weapon might be housed."
NEST in 1997: Response
"Made up of several components, NEST capabilities include search and identification of nuclear materials, diagnostics and assessment of suspected nuclear devices, and disablement and containment programs. NEST personnel and equipment are deployable at all times. They can be quickly transported by military or commercial aircraft to any location worldwide. NEST possesses the capability to render a rogue device safe and package it for transport to a secure location for follow-on disassembly operations. This program consists of an all-volunteer community composed of scientists, engineers, and technicians from the nuclear weapons design laboratories. The operational capability deployed in response to an incident of nuclear terrorism varies in size from a five person advisory team that supports specialized classified programs, to a NEST deployment with as many as 800 searchers and scientists, complemented by their technical and logistical equipment. We have developed operational programs tailored to meet the needs of our interagency partners: the FBI, and the Departments of State and Defense. We have continuously updated and modified those operational programs as the threat and needs of the supported agencies have evolved," Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, Director, Office of Emergency Response, Acting Director, Office of Weapons Surety Defense Programs, reported in her Testimony for the 1997 Congressional Hearings on Special Weapons Nuclear, Chemical, Biological, and Missile.
"The Department's current counter terrorism strategy is to tailor our operational assets, as necessary, to respond where nonproliferation measures fail. This strategy employs a wide variety of our scientific and technical expertise to neutralize nuclear weapons or devices aimed at United States interests by rogue states, extra-national entities, and terrorist groups. DOE's substantial capability includes detecting, locating, identifying, diagnosing, and disabling such weapons. DOE also has the capability to mitigate the blast effects of non-nuclear disablement activity.
"NEST teams now practice a wide variety of deployment scenarios from table-top exercises to long-range deployments to remote locations. In conjunction with the FBI, State and DOD, we conduct smaller and more focused terrorism related exercises more frequently than in the past. The NEST exercise program has re-focused its efforts to support rapid and customized deployment to a wide range of nuclear threats. As a result of these exercises, we have enhanced interagency coordination and streamlined command and control during an incident," Gordon-Hagerty said.
History of NEST: Response
"Established in the mid-seventies, NEST was designed to respond to incidents of nuclear extortion in support of the FBI. The extortion scenario allowed for planning and operations to be conducted over a period of several days because the intelligence and law enforcement communities believed that the extortionist would allow time for negotiations. The idea that a nuclear device would fall into the hands of terrorists and be detonated without notice was not deemed credible at that time. Consequently, the NEST capabilities were developed and based on large-scale deployments. This process was slow but very thorough, because it was assumed there would be sufficient time to deploy all NEST assets to meet the technical challenge.
"In August, 1980, a sophisticated improvised explosive device was detonated in Harvey's Casino in State Line, Nevada. The device was exploded by a failed attempt to render it safe. While this particular device was not nuclear, it offered many of the problems that our scientists and analysts feared could be encountered in a nuclear device. It was the most sophisticated device of its type that the U.S. had encountered to date and thus became a benchmark for the development of new equipment and techniques to render safe similar devices.
"In the years that followed, the nuclear threat remained relatively constant and the capabilities of the NEST program continued to be enhanced. Nonetheless, the NEST organization continued to believe that time was on their side when responding to nuclear threats," Gordon-Hagerty said in her 1997 Statement.
U.S. Department of Energy
National Nuclear Security Administration
Nevada Site Office
P.O. Box 98518
Las Vegas, NV 89193-8518
- Fact Sheet: Nuclear Emergency Support Team, Department of Energy.
- Eileen Patterson, "Render Safe, Defusing a Nuclear Emergency," Los Alamos National Laboratory, Fall 2002.
Articles & Profiles
- David E. Kaplan and Douglas Pasternak, "Terror’s dirty secret. Radioactive material, loosely guarded, makes a cheap weapon," U.S. News & World Report, November 23, 2001.
- David Hughes, "When Terrorists Go Nuclear. The ingredients and information have never been more available," Popular Mechanics, March 4, 2002.
- Douglas Weller, "The Secret Bomb Squad," TIME (CNN), March 11, 2002.
- Joe Klein, "Searching For the Dirty Bomb. Once upon a time you only saw it in the movies. Now it's accepted as routine preventive maintenance," TIME, March 12, 2002.
- Fred Kaplan, "Mobile teams on hunt for atomic threats," Boston Globe, June 9, 2002: "Rooted in the Energy Department, NEST assists the FBI and reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pentagon. (President Bush's reorganization would place it in the new Department of Homeland Security.)"
- Fred Kaplan, "Star Wars Spending Spree. Billions for Missile Defense, peanuts for anti-terrorism," Slate, November 7, 2002.
- Christopher Lee, "DOE Bomb Squads' Exacting Mission. Team Hunting for Radioactive Explosives Faces Aging Equipment, Talent Shortage, Analysts Say," Washington Post (nucnews.net), March 9, 2004.
- "Secret Government Team Fights to Negate Nuclear Threat," ABC News, October 11, 2005.
- David E. Kaplan, "EXCLUSIVE: Nuclear Monitoring of Muslims Done Without Search Warrants," U.S. News & World Report, December 22, 2005.
- "Mosques monitored for radiation: report," Reuters, December 23, 2005.
- "FBI Official Defends Radiation Monitoring," Associated Press (CBS News), December 24, 2005.