NEST coverThe Nuclear Emergency Search Team, 1974-1996
Declassified Documents Depict Creation, Capabilities,
And Activities of Once-Secret Nuclear Counterterrorism Unit

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 267

Edited by Jeffrey T. Richelson

Posted - January 12, 2009

For more information contact:
Jeffrey T. Richelson - 202/994-7000

Washington, D.C., January 12, 2009 - The U.S. government’s secret nuclear bomb squad evaluated more than 100 nuclear extortion threats and incidents between 1974 and 1996 but only a dozen required actual deployments (the others were hoaxes), according to the new book, Defusing Armageddon, and key primary sources posted today in the National Security Archive's "Nuclear Vault" by Archive senior fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson. (

The Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) had the capacity in 1996 of deploying up to 600 people and over 150 tons of equipment to an incident site, but all deployments to that point had been much smaller (a maximum of 45 people), according to the documents.  A subsequent Web posting will cover the NEST from 1997 through the present.

Managed by the Nevada Operations Office of the Department of Energy (and its predecessors), NEST drew personnel from key national laboratories – Los Alamos, Sandia, Livermore – and their contractors. On an everyday basis NEST personnel worked in a multitude of areas – including  weapons design, diagnostics, health physics, and information technology – and were called into action for exercises or actual deployments. 

Today’s posting of twenty-four documents includes, but is not limited to: national intelligence estimates on the threat of clandestine attack, the directive resulting in the creation of NEST, examples of extortion letters and the psycholinguistic analysis of such letters, accounts of NEST participation in the effort to locate the remains of a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite that crashed into the Canadian wilderness in 1978, documents concerning the controversial 1994 MIRAGE GOLD exercise and its aftermath, and briefing material concerning NEST’s mission as well as its human and technical capabilities.

The documents were obtained by Archive Senior Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson while conducting research for his new book, Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad.


The Nuclear Emergency Search Team, 1974-1996
Edited by Jeffrey T. Richelson

In May 1974 the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a letter demanding that $200,000 be left at a particular location or a nuclear bomb would be detonated somewhere in Boston. In response to the threat William Chambers, a physicist with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, was instructed to assemble a team of scientists and technical personnel to travel to Boston and search for the allegedly hidden device.

While the threat did result in the formation of a team – the Nuclear Emergency Search Team – consisting of personnel from key national laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia) and their contractors, it was not the beginning of U.S. concern with stolen, lost, or concealed  nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the U.S. Intelligence Community explored (Document 2, Document 4)  the motivations and capabilities of the Soviet Union and China to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States as well as U.S. vulnerabilities (Document 1).

The U.S. Air Force also experienced a number of accidents involving aircraft, including B-52s, armed with nuclear weapons. There was a crash at Palomares, Spain in February 1966, as well as one at Thule, Iceland in January 1968. Both resulted in extensive efforts to locate personnel and debris. The effort that followed the Thule crash,  designated CRESTED ICE, was the subject of a Strategic Air Command history (Document 3) and included the use of nuclear detection equipment to locate radioactive debris.

During the Nixon administration there was also concern about  the threat posed to reactors, which resulted in a study concerning the status of domestic safeguards of nuclear material. In a subsequent national security directive (Document 5), national security adviser Kissinger notes Nixon’s special concern with the threat of sabotage, plutonium contamination, and armed attacks by terrorists.

The rushed, ad hoc, response to the threat to Boston, resulted in a directive (Document 6) to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Operations Office that assigned the office responsibility for search and detection operations. In response to the directive the office established the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST). Personnel chosen for NEST would still keep their positions in weapons design, diagnostics, or other areas but would participate in exercises and agree to deploy in the event of a real crisis. Some would also help design detection equipment (Document 9) for NEST personnel in the field.

In subsequent years NEST personnel deployed to a number of major and smaller cities in the United States in response to nuclear extortion threats. A deployment to Los Angeles in late 1975 was triggered by an extortion letter (Document 7) transmitted to the president of the Union Oil Corporation. Another deployment followed in 1979 when an employee of a General Electric plant in Wilmington, North Carolina removed some low-enriched uranium and threatened to send vials of it to activist organizations and news outlets (Document 12a) if he did not receive the payment demanded. One element of the NEST response was to examine the threatening communication for clues about the extortionist and to assess the credibility of the threat. A number of assessments were conducted in the Wilmington case, including at least one (Document 12b) by Syracuse University psycholinguist and NEST consultant Murray Miron. Often the initial credibility assessments resulted in the conclusion that no NEST response was necessary.

In other instances NEST was deployed or was near deployment in response to the reentry of nuclear-powered Soviet or Russian satellites into the atmosphere. When the remains of a Soviet satellite crashed into the Canadian Northwest Territories in 1978, NEST personnel joined the search for any radioactive remains (Document 10, Document 11). While that was NEST’s first foreign deployment, it would not be its last. In June 1982, a joint memorandum (Document 14) signed by the Departments of Energy, Defense, and State that delineated the departments responsibility for responding to “malevolent nuclear incidents” overseas, with many of the Department of Energy’s responsibilities being NEST’s.
When not involved in actual deployments NEST personnel often participated in exercises, including “full-field exercises,” whose purpose was to test the response of NEST and other agencies involved in dealing with a nuclear incident (including the FBI , military, and Federal Emergency Management Agency). A key exercise in the 1980s was MIGHTY DERRINGER, held in Indianapolis in 1986. In October 1994, NEST, FBI, and other personnel participated in MIRAGE GOLD in New Orleans.

While the after-action report (Document 16) of the exercise was positive, a much less favorable view was held by Admiral Charles J. Beers Jr., the senior Energy department official directly responsible for NEST. Beers detailed his concerns in a January 1995 memo (Document 17) and “requested” an assessment team be assembled to review the NEST program. The extensive report (Document 18) was completed in July 1995.

While NEST has become more secretive about its activities since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was more open in the mid-1990s. One example of that openness was the briefing slides and associated text (Document 19a, Document 19b) used in explaining NEST human and technical capabilities and activities to the press. 


Read the Documents

Document 1: Director of Central Intelligence, NIE-31, Soviet Capabilities for Clandestine Attack Against the US With Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Vulnerability of the US to Such Attack (mid-1951 to mid-1952), August 30, 1951. Top Secret.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency Historical Review Program

This national intelligence estimate examined the vulnerability of the United States to a Soviet attack using chemical, biological, or chemical weapons prior to the formal outbreak of war between the two nations. The estimate explored a number of means of clandestine attack with nuclear weapons – including the use of disguised aircraft, merchant ships, commercial shipments, and diplomatic channels. It also considered the mostly likely targets for clandestinely introduced chemical and biological weapons.

Document 2a: Director of Central Intelligence, NIE 11-7-60, Soviet Capabilities and Intentions With Respect to the Clandestine Introduction of Weapons of Mass Destruction Into the US, May 17, 1960. Top Secret.

Document 2b: Director of Central Intelligence, NIE 4-68, The Clandestine Introduction of Weapons of Mass Destruction into the US, June 18, 1968, Top Secret.

Source: Central Intelligence Agency Historical Review Program

As its title indicates the 1960 estimate is more focused on Soviet capabilities and intentions with regard to clandestine attack using weapons of mass destruction, rather than U.S. vulnerabilities, as in the 1951 estimate (Document 1). While the estimate acknowledges a Soviet capability to conduct such an attack it asserts that such an attack “would be most unlikely” except in conjunction “with a deliberate Soviet initiation of general war.”

The 1968 estimate differs from the 1960 estimate it in at least one important respect – it also includes China as a potential smuggler of weapons of mass destruction into the United States

According to the estimate, China might seek to smuggle a nuclear weapon onto American soil because it (at the time) lacked any other means of attacking the U.S. with nuclear weapons, but considered such an action “unlikely.”

Document 3: Strategic Air Command, SAC Historical Study #113, Project CRESTED ICE: The Thule Nuclear Accident (U), Volume I, April 23, 1969. Classification Not Available. (Missing pages due to redaction).

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

On January 21, 1968 a B-52, carrying atomic weapons, crashed near Thule, Greenland. To recover the crashed aircraft, personnel, weapons, and detect and clean-up any radioactivity, the Air Force initiated Project CRESTED ICE. This document, describes the accident and the recovery operations that followed.

Document 4: Director of Central Intelligence, NIE 4-70, The Clandestine Introduction of Nuclear Weapons into the US, July 7, 1970. Top Secret.

Source: CIA Electronic Reading Room

This estimate again examines the prospects that a nation, primarily the Soviet Union or China, would seek to smuggle chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons onto U.S. territory. It examines Soviet and Chinese capabilities and strategic considerations. The estimate explores a possible motivation for clandestine introduction of a nuclear weapon into the United States by China not examined in the 1968 estimate (Document 2b), but one that was explored in novels and movies of the era. The authors of the estimate discussed the possibility that China might introduce a nuclear weapon , one constructed to appear to be a Soviet weapon, with the intention of either provoking a U.S.-Soviet crisis or war.

Document 5: National Security Decision Memorandum 254, Subject: Domestic Safeguards, April 27, 1974. Secret.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This memo, signed by national security adviser Henry Kissinger on behalf of President Richard Nixon, follows Nixon’s receipt of a report concerning the status of domestic safeguards of nuclear material. Kissinger notes Nixon’s special concern with the threat of sabotage, plutonium contamination, and armed attacks by terrorists.

Document 6: Major General Ernest Graves, Assistant General Manager for Military Applications, Atomic Energy Commission, to M.E. Gates, Manager, Nevada Operations, Responsibility for Search and Detection Operations, November 18, 1974. Secret.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This memo from General Graves assigns Gates and the AEC’s Nevada Operations Office responsibility for search and detection operations with respect to lost and stolen nuclear weapons and special nuclear material, as well as  responding to nuclear bomb and radiation dispersal threats. It specifies six ways in which Gates and the NOO is to carry out those responsibilities. The memo became the basis for the creation of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST).

Document 7: Fision to Fred L. Hartley, Union Oil of California, November 3, 1975. Unclassified.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This letter from “Fision” was an attempt at nuclear extortion – directed against Union Oil of California and its properties in the Los Angeles area – that ended in the arrest, indictment, and incarceration of the perpetrator. Investigation of the threat was the province of the FBI, while NEST was involved in searching Union Oil properties on which Fision had claimed to have concealed a 20 kiloton device. No device was found.

Document 8: Energy Research and Development Administration, ERDA Fact Sheet, Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), n.d. (but 1977). Unclassified.

Source: Energy Research and Development Administration

NEST began its existence as an unacknowledged government organization, but in 1977 it was concluded that NEST would have to interact with local law enforcement and political authorities in dealing with nuclear threats, and thus its existence would need to be acknowledged. This fact sheet, distributed to the press by ERDA,  was the means by which NEST’s existence was quietly announced.  

Document 9: E.J. Dowdy, C.N. Henry, R.D. Hastings, S.W. France, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Neutron Detector Suitcase for the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, February 1978. Unclassified.

Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory

This technical paper describes one piece of equipment designed specifically for NEST personnel – a portable neutron detection system that could be carried in any vehicle. The paper describes the detectors, the electronics, and operations.

Document 10: Gus W. Weiss, “The Life and Death of Cosmos 954,” Studies in Intelligence,
22, 1 (Spring 1974), pp. 1-7.  Secret.

Source: CIA Historical Review Program

In late January 1978, a Soviet radar ocean reconnaissance satellite, powered by a nuclear reactor, made a premature reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Fragments from the satellite landed in the Canadian Northwest Territories. A key part of the effort, designated Operation Morning Light,  to locate and retrieve the remains of the satellite, involved the Nuclear Emergency Search Team. This article provides an overview of the crisis and the input from various sources in tracking the satellite during the end of its lifetime and assessing the danger.

Document 11: Nevada Operations Office, Department of Energy, Operation Morning Light, Canadian Northwest Territories/1978: A Non-Technical Summary of United States Participation, September 1978. Unclassified.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This detailed (88 pp.) report describes the events leading up to Operation Morning Light, the highlights of the operation as conducted by both U.S. and Canadian forces, the results, the lessons learned, and U.S. search and recovery readiness. Included is significant discussion of the role of NEST in the search and recovery effort.

Document 12a: Letter to Randall Alkema, Plant Manager, January 29, 1979. Unclassified.

Document 12b: F.W. Jessen, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, “Nuclear Extortion: Psycholinguistic Preliminary Report,” February 1, 1979. Unclassified.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

In late January 1979, nuclear material was stolen from a General Electric plant in Wilmington, Delaware. In the first document, the thief demands payment to return the material and threatens to send samples to newspapers and activist groups if his demands are not satisfied. The second document transmits the analysis of the threatening letter by Murray Miron, a Syracuse University expert on psycholinguistics and consultant to NEST, via the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, where the NEST credibility assessment group was headquartered.

Document 13a: FBI Washington Field [Office] To Director FBI, “Atomic Energy Act – Information Concerning,” August 21, 1980. Classification Not Available.

Document 13b: Washington Field [Office] To Director FBI, “Changed; Greenpeace Foundation Demonstration, White House, Washington, D.C., August 21, 1980; Atomic Energy Act – Information Concerning,” August 22, 1980. Classification Not Available.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

These two memos were the result of an action by several members of Greenpeace, who collected the uranium tailings from a mining operation, placed them in a barrel along with a geiger counter – to illustrate their concern that nuclear waste piles were contaminating the western United States– and left the barrel in front of the White House. The barrel was removed and a NEST team examined and dismantled the barrel, ultimately concluding that there was no radioactive threat.

Document 14: Department of State (State), Department of Energy (DOE), and Department of Defense (DOD), Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) For Responding to Malevolent Nuclear Incidents Outside U.S. Territory and Possessions, January 28, 1982. For Official Use Only.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

While NEST was created with nuclear threats against domestic targets in mind, it could be deployed if another nation requested U.S. assistance or accepted a U.S. offer of assistance – as Canada did in 1978. This memorandum of understanding specifies the responsibilities of the State, Energy, and Defense departments in dealing with such an incident – with State being the lead agency (whereas in a domestic incident the FBI is the lead agency). The responsibilities assigned to the Department of Energy would largely be fulfilled by NEST.

Document 15: Department of Energy, DOE Order 5530.2, Subject: Nuclear Emergency Search Team, September 20, 1991, Unclassified.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This order specifies the concept of operations for NEST – with respect to notification that its services are required, mobilization, operations, public information, and deactivation (at the end of each incident). It also delineates the responsibilities and authorities of a variety of Energy Department officials, including the deputy assistant secretary for military operations, and the manager of the Nevada field office.

Document 16: Nevada Operations Office, Department of Energy, The Mile Shakedown Series of Exercises: A Compilation of Comments and Critiques, February 18, 1995. Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information. (Missing pages due to redaction).

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

In October 1994, a contingent of NEST personnel, along with personnel from the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the military, converged on New Orleans for the MIRAGE GOLD field exercise, the final component in a series of exercises designated Mile Shakedown. The exercise’s objective was the location and disablement of nuclear devices hidden in the city by a fictional terrorist group – the Patriots of National Unity.

Document 17: Rear Admiral Charles J. Beers, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Military Application and Stockpile Support, Defense Programs, Subject: Nuclear Emergency Search Team, January 25, 1995. Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This memo, written by the highest Energy department official with the direct responsibility for NEST, questioned both the integrity and credibility of the MIRAGE GOLD exercise and NEST leadership. In addition, to specifying areas of concern Beers “requested” a full-scale review of NEST with regard to the concerns specified.

Document 18: Nuclear Emergency Search Team Assessment Team, Nuclear Emergency Search Team – Assessment Team Report, July 12, 1995. Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information.

Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

In response to the Beers memo (Document 17) an assessment team was assembled, chaired by former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory official Duane C. Sewell. The report they submitted focused on management and organization, technical response capabilities, logistics and technical support, deployment readiness, deployment command and decision authorities, research and development, training, field exercises, interagency participation, intelligence, policies and procedures, and funding, budgeting and planning.

Document 19a: Nevada Operations Office, A Response to Nuclear Terrorism, n.d. (but circa 1996). Unclassified.

Document 19b: Nevada Operations Office, Standard NEST Briefing, n.d. (but circa 1996)

Source: Robert Windrem

These two documents constitute unclassified slides used in press briefings during the mid-1990s and the accompanying script. They cover the NEST missions and responsibilities, authorities, deployment and on-scene activities, field organization, the source of NEST team members, and air and ground equipment.