Defusing Armageddon: A History of NEST

01.12.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“In May 1974, the U.S. government received its first serious nuclear threat,” recalls author Jeffrey T. Richelson.  “A letter demanding that $200,00 be left at a particular location arrived at the FBI. Failure to comply, it claimed, would result in the [detonation] of a nuclear bomb somewhere in Boston.”

The threat was soon exposed as a hoax, but it prompted the creation of a then-secret organization originally known as the Nuclear Emergency Search (later: Source) Team, or NEST, which would be responsible for the “search and identification of lost or stolen nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials, bomb threats, and radiation dispersal threats.”

The history of that organization is unveiled by Richelson in his new book “Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad” (W.W. Norton, January 2009).

The mission of NEST is inherently gripping, though its story is not consistently dramatic.  It is full of false alarms and potential worst-case scenarios that thankfully never materialize.  With the cooperation of some NEST veterans, Richelson provides a painstakingly thorough account, including a previously unpublished list of 103 nuclear extortion threat events from 1970-1993.

Some of NEST’s exploits were front-page news in their time.  I thought I had read (or written) everything worth reading about the 1978 reentry of the Soviet nuclear reactor-powered Cosmos 954 satellite, which rained radioactive debris over northwest Canada.  But Richelson, an exceptionally skilled researcher who is a fellow at the National Security Archive, uncovered some interesting and unfamiliar accounts of that episode, known as Operation Morning Light, in which more than 100 NEST personnel participated.

The uncertain potential for nuclear terrorism in the post-9/11 era, including the possibility of deliberate dispersal of radioactive material in a “dirty bomb,” poses increased challenges to NEST’s capacity to quickly detect and respond to such events.

“But like many forms of insurance or protection that may never be needed or may not protect against all threats, NEST is a capability that, had it not been established in 1974, would have been considered essential to create in 2001,” Richelson concludes.