Who Do You Call When You Find a Ticking Nuke?
Osama Bin Laden says he has nukes, a journalist found nuclear weapons-related documents in an al-Qaida safehouse in Kabul, and Pakistan recently detained two nuclear scientists suspected of meeting with al-Qaida leaders. Who will protect us if a ticking nuke turns up in downtown Washington or New York City?
The Nuclear Emergency Search Team. President Gerald Ford created this special response team following a 1974 nuclear extortion hoax in Boston. NEST consists of roughly 1,000 Energy Department physicists, engineers, and computer programmers who have volunteered for training. NEST members, who are on 24/seven call, are scattered around the country. In the event of an emergency, NEST can mobilize a team within four hours. (NESTers are unarmed; the FBI or commandos carry the iron.)
It's next to impossible to find a bomb without some clue about where to look. But portable gamma-ray and neutron detectors can sniff out some nukes from vans or helicopters. After narrowing a bomb's location, NEST members seek the device as surreptitiously as possible using portable radiation detectors hidden inside briefcases, backpacks, or as some reports claim, beer coolers. (The terrorists could shield their weapon's radiation with lead, but that would dramatically increase the device's weight.) Background radiation can also complicate a search, which is why Energy Department scientists map natural radiation hot spots created by things like hospital equipment. Last month, a team swept the Salt Lake City area in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
To disable the weapon, NEST must determine whether it is dealing with a nuclear bomb or a "dirty bomb," in which radioactive materials have been attached to conventional explosives. Dirty bombs are less destructive than nuclear bombs but still extremely deadly. They are likely to be easier to disarm, however, because they are based on cruder technology. NEST can contain the blast from a dirty bomb by erecting huge nylon tents around it and adding chemical foam to absorb radioactive material if the device explodes.
The first step in deactivating a nuclear bomb is to divine its structure with X-rays and compare it against potential bomb designs. The dismantlers start by checking for booby traps. They're said to carry 30 mm cannons to shoot a bomb to bits, liquid nitrogen to freeze a bomb's electronics, and high-pressure water jets that can carve a weapon without creating dangerous sparks.
NEST refuses to discuss reports of its deployments, but according to published reports, the team has been alerted about 110 times up to 1998; 30 of those threats were deemed credible. In one, a former nuclear plant employee stole deadly uranium oxide and threatened to disperse it unless he was paid $100,000. (He was caught and jailed.) The San Jose Mercury News has cited several other NEST responses, including a 1987 bomb threat in Indianapolis and one in El Paso, Texas, in 1990.
Although NEST is staffed by some of the nation's best and the brightest, it is only as good as the intelligence that leads it to bombs. In 1997, the Energy Department told Congress that when NEST was created, the assumption was that nuclear extortionists would allow time for negotiations, giving NEST time to hunt. "The idea that a terrorist would gain possession of a nuclear device and detonate it without warning was not deemed credible," the agency said.
It is now.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at the