Stopping nuclear terror

The Bush administration says that terrorists are conspiring to explode a nuclear bomb or a “dirty” bomb somewhere on U.S. soil. A government agency with the placid name NEST aims to stop them. How?

What is NEST?

The Nuclear Emergency Search Team is the nation’s nuclear SWAT team. It consists of an elite organization of scientists, engineers, nuclear-weapons experts, and technicians who are dispatched to respond to nuclear emergencies, including hidden bombs. Since Sept. 11, NEST operatives have been scanning New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities for the presence of nuclear materials. NEST teams equipped like modern-day James Bonds are flying over the cities in special helicopters that can detect radiation sources from the air. They’re patrolling the streets in pizza-delivery vans that are actually Hot Spot Mobile Labs loaded with equipment. They’re blending in to crowds with backpacks wired to pick up radiation sources.

How big is NEST?

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The agency consists of 70 people based at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory outside San Francisco, plus another 70 part-timers. On call 24 hours a day, personnel can respond to an emergency anywhere in the U.S. within four hours. Currently part of the Department of Energy, NEST is one of the agencies that would be absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security. Its budget is $77 million.

How did NEST originate?

In 1975, extortionists said they would explode a nuclear bomb in Boston unless they were paid $200,000. The federal government’s response was like an episode from the Keystone Cops. Scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission flew by commercial airliner into Boston. The planes were late, and their luggage, including scientific equipment, was lost. When the scientists finally found their radiation equipment, they had no idea where in Boston to look. The call turned out to be a hoax, but the debacle convinced President Ford of the need for a special agency to deal with nuclear terrorism.

Has the agency been called upon?

Between 1975 and 2000, NEST responded to about 125 calls. All but 30 were classified as hoaxes or unsubstantiated. The agency says that several of the others were blackmail attempts by people working in the nuclear industry, but will not provide any further details. Right after 9/11, NEST was “forward deployed” to key cities. In October, when intelligence agencies warned that terrorists had targeted Manhattan with either a nuclear bomb or an ordinary bomb packed with radioactive materials—a “dirty” bomb—NEST operatives helped screen thousands of trucks entering Manhattan. They found nothing suspicious.

Can NEST teams be effective?

Only if they have a pretty good idea where to look. “The ability to find a smuggled nuclear weapon is going to be between difficult and impossible unless there is good intelligence that can pin the device down to a certain neighborhood,” says Bruce Blair, president of the Defense Information Center. But even then it’s hard. NEST’s detectors are sensitive enough to spot a bomb, but they also react to other sources of radiation. Patients who’ve received radiation therapy, rocks that are laced with radioactive ore, even bunches of bananas (rich in potassium, which is mildly radioactive) have been known to set off detectors. And some nuclear weapons don’t emit much radiation, or can be shielded. But scientists have recently developed an ultrasensitive handheld radiation detector that can help NEST’s efficiency.

Let’s say they find somebody with a bomb. What then?

That person will probably be killed. NEST teams are unarmed, but they are often accompanied by special FBI or military units, who are authorized to kill anyone possessing nuclear weapons.

Then what?

NEST will attempt to disable the weapon. NEST devotes considerable attention to mastering bomb construction and bomb neutralization. Pouring liquid nitrogen over it to freeze the bomb mechanism is one approach. They can also use small explosives to harmlessly detonate the explosives around the nuclear material, or try to disarm it with their remote-control robot. They may also cover a dirty bomb with a big nylon tent, which they then fill with 30,000 cubic feet of foam. When the bomb explodes, the foam absorbs the radiation.

And these steps would work?

Theoretically. The only evidence comes from exercises and computer scenarios. According to The Boston Globe, in a live exercise in New Orleans in 1994, NEST found the bomb, although a report by the Department of Defense said the deck was stacked to make finding it easy. A live exercise in May 2000 was deemed a success by NEST officials, but a Senate observer said there were huge problems with interagency coordination. In computer exercises, NEST usually disarms the bomb. But one time in 10, it explodes.

Is there a solution?

The best defense is keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, experts say. Once a bomb is made, physicist and security expert Dr. Steven Fetter tells The New York Times, NEST will need a lot of luck to prevent disaster. “If all you can say is that there’s a bomb in New York,” Fetter says, “it’s just hopeless.”

How real is the threat?

The threat of the scariest scenario—terrorists exploding a nuclear weapon—is considered low. Fears that weapons from the Soviet Union have been sold or stolen appear to be unfounded, Jason Pate, a terrorism expert at California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, tells the San Francisco Chronicle. Even if a Soviet nuclear weapon were obtained, he says, terrorists would need the arming codes, which are highly secret and not kept with the bomb. Dirty bombs are a more likely possibility. Radioactive materials such as radioactive cesium, cobalt, iridium, or strontium are in widespread use, and are easily obtained. Chechen rebels once planted a box containing 30 pounds of cesium in a park in Moscow, says U.S. News & World Report. But casualties from a dirty bomb would be relatively light, the federal government says. They’d be limited to those hurt by the blast itself, and anyone who ingested radioactive particles. Only one or two people might develop cancer as a result of a dirty bomb explosion, officials say. “But it would cause a lot of terror,” says David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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