The Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST)

Cameron Reed

[This article is based on a presentation titled "Don't Mess With the NEST," which Dr. Michael O. Larson gave in a session on "New Developments in Radiation Detection Technologies & Nuclear Security" at the April 2012 APS meeting in Atlanta. We thank Dr. Larson for providing the Figures. – Ed.]


The Nuclear Emergency Support Team was formed in 1975 in response to various domestic nuclear extortion threats. The mission of NEST is to conduct, direct, and coordinate search and recovery operations for nuclear material, weapons or devices, and to assist in the identification and deactivation of Improvised Nuclear Devices (INDs) and Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs). To this end, NEST builds and stores equipment and maintains 24/7 deployable response teams at various locations around the United States, ready to respond to incidents. In this article, I will review the history of NEST, describe some of its deployments and exercises, and review its current operational configuration, which includes a Nuclear Threat Credibility Assessment Program, Radiological Assistance Program teams, and Joint Technical Operations Teams. As one might expect for such an agency, there are close connections to a number of government departments and national laboratories; a list of acronyms appears in Table 1.

Origins of the NEST

The origins of the NEST go back to 1970, when the mayor of Orlando, Florida, found on his windshield an extortion threat typewritten in red. It claimed that a "nuclear fission device" involving uranium-235 was hidden in the city; the perpetrator(s) demanded money and safe passage out of the country. The scientific contents of the note were garbled, but a subsequent handwritten note – which bore a return address – contained a drawing of the alleged device, which an "expert" deemed roughly accurate. The Atomic Energy Commission had no protocol for dealing with such situations; the police had to take the threat seriously. The return address was that of an abandoned house, but neighbors told investigating officers that a boy would periodically come by to mow the lawn. The boy's handwriting proved identical to that in the second note; he was arrested (age 14), and the threat was revealed to be a hoax.

Further early-1970's threats – all hoaxes – prompted Fred Jessen of LLNL to decide that a response capability to deal with possible terrorist nuclear threats was necessary. Jessen established Project Warmspot, which involved a search van equipped with various radiation-detection instruments. In May, 1974, a threat received in Boston prompted the FBI to seek technical assistance, and LLNL, LANL, and EG&G responded by deploying experts under the direction of an AEC official. The Boston incident was also a hoax, but pointed up the need for a national-level threat-response capability, and in November, 1975, Project Warmspot was incorporated into the multi-agency Nuclear Emergency Search Team under the auspices of the AEC, which assigned its Nevada Operations Office to oversee the group. Based on authority granted by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the lead federal agency in domestic NEST-related investigations is the FBI. Today, NEST is housed within the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration.

Exercises and Deployments

Between 1975 and 1994, NEST mounted some 30 exercises and deployments. The first major exercise was NEST77, which was held at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. This involved a sophisticated IND designed and built by LLNL. This exercise involved a number of organizations: the FBI, Department of Defense (DoD), LLNL, LANL, SNL, EG&G, and the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (at LLNL) which worked to predict a fallout pattern if a detonation had occurred; NEST carried out diagnostic, device assessment, and disablement exercises. An exercise held in 1980 in New Mexico was performed as if it was occurring on foreign soil; since it was "outside" the continental United States (OCONUS), the lead federal agency was the Department of State, not the FBI. Another exercise held in New Mexico in 1984 was configured to simulate a low-profile search for the notional IND in a major city. This exercise marked the first time that a foam-filled containment tent, which could contain debris from the detonation of the high explosives, was erected. A 1986 exercise simulated an OCONUS device plus a second device planted in a Midwest American city, necessitating participation from multiple federal agencies and state and local officials; NEST deployed teams to both sites. In this case, a notional detonation was played at the CONUS site, and FEMA exercised "Consequence Management." Another major exercise staged in California in 1988 was designed to test interagency operations, and involved a notional attack on a convoy where a US weapon was stolen and hostages taken. Search, hostage negotiations, and render-safe operations were performed. A 1994 exercise in New Orleans involved some 850 participants, and received significant public exposure via a segment on the popular television program "Behind Closed Doors" hosted by Joan Lunden, and a cover story in Time magazine titled "Nuclear Ninjas" (January 8, 1996).

One of NEST's first true deployments occurred in southern California in 1975, in response to a device threat at Union Oil. Nothing was found, but the deployment was useful for establishing procedures. A large-scale real-life deployment was Operation Morning Light, which was mounted in response to the crash of the nuclear-powered Soviet Cosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite in northern Canada in January, 1978, depositing debris over a 600-kilometer path. The Canadian government requested help from the United States, and NEST deployed an extensive array of search equipment. Morning Light involved covering, by foot and air, an area of some 124,000 square kilometers (Fig. 1). Twelve larger pieces of the satellite were recovered, all but two of which were radioactive. These pieces displayed radioactivity of up to 1.1 sieverts per hour, and one fragment has been claimed to have had a radioactivity level of 5 sieverts per hour; the normal maximum annual recommended per-person dose level is 5 sieverts per year. The Canadian government billed Russia for $6 million for the cleanup, and received $3 million [1].

Operation Morning Light, 1978
Figure 1 Operation Morning Light, 1978

In August, 1980, a very sophisticated bomb containing 1,000 pounds of dynamite was found at Harvey's Casino, in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The FBI and bomb squads were unprepared, and an attempt to disarm the bomb caused it to detonate (Fig. 2). No one was injured, but the event caused the NEST's mission to be modified to include dealing with "sophisticated improvised explosive devices (SIED)."

The Harvey’s Casino bomb and the result of its attempted disarmament
Figure 2 The Harvey’s Casino bomb and the result of its attempted disarmament

The Nuclear Threat Credibility Assessment Program

Since 1970, there have been some 350 instances of domestic nuclear extortion threats (stolen weapons, IND, RDD, or threats to attack a reactor), virtually all of which have been hoaxes. As mobilizing to each threat would be costly and represent a vast waste of resources, Fred Jessen formed, in 1978, the Communicated Threat Credibility Assessment program (CTCA), which was later renamed the Nuclear Assessment Program (NAP). This program, which has a Communications and Coordinating Center at LLNL, is tasked with assessing whether or not claims are credible from the points of view of behavioral resolve, technical feasibility, and operational practicality. Two teams are always employed to cross-check conclusions, with advice as to the necessity of deploying resources (or not) then being transmitted to decision makers.

Following the 1994 exercise in New Orleans, NEST was restructured. The name NEST was maintained but instead of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team it became the Nuclear Emergency Support Team. It was reorganized into three elements: the Nuclear/Radiological Support Team (NRAT), Search, and the Joint Technical Operations Team (JTOT). NRAT has domestic and foreign support teams which deploy from Washington to advise local authorities, and provide a rapid-response capability to provide preliminary information for follow-on groups. The Search group deploys specialized capabilities to address the problem of finding a radioactive threat object. JTOT incorporates what was essentially the operational capability of the original NEST, and is responsible for deploying specialized technical capabilities, instruments, and people who are charged with rendering objects safe and subjecting them to analysis and disposal.

The JTOT teams are composed of scientists and technicians from various DOE laboratories as well Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team members.

Incident Response, and the Current Status of NEST

What happens if a credible threat is received? First on the scene may be a Radiological Assistance Program (RAP) team, deployed from one of the nine United States RAP regions from which the threat originates (Fig. 3). Data from Police, Fire, Customs, and RAP personnel who carry spectrometers and radiation-detecting equipment is fed to LLNL, LANL, and SNL, who have staff on-call 24/7 to analyze the data and provide advice to the DOE and NNSA. If it is concurred that a device is of interest, a JTOT team will be deployed. If radioactive material is apprehended, a nuclear forensic analysis will be carried out to characterize it.

Map of Department of Energy Radiological Assistance Program geographical areas.
Figure 3 Map of Department of Energy Radiological Assistance Program geographical areas. Region 0 is the National Capital Region

America can feel secure that any nuclear threats will be dealt with promptly and effectively. NEST continues to leverage and support research and development at national laboratories to develop instruments to diagnose and disable threat devices, and maintains teams at constant readiness through a program of exercises that involve physical deployments of emergency response personnel to various locations. Deployments can be no-notice, where on-call team members must be able to get to their home center and then deploy rapidly, without prior knowledge. "Don't Mess with the NEST"! They are ready!



These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.

Table 1. Acronyms

CONUS: Continental United States
DoD: Department of Defense
DOE: Department of Energy
EG&G: Edgerton, Germeshausen & Grier, Inc.
IND: Improvised Nuclear Device
JTOT: Joint Technical Operations Team
LANL: Los Alamos National Laboratory
LLNL: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
NNSA: National Nuclear Security Administration
NRAT: Nuclear/Radiological Support Team
OCONUS: Outside Continental United States
RAP: Radiological Assistance Program
RDD: Radiological Dispersal Device
SNL: Sandia National Laboratory