Nuclear Emergency Support Team, United States

Nuclear Emergency Support Team, United States

The Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) is part of an emergency response branch of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), itself a unit of the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Established in the mid-1970s—long before NNSA itself—NEST has analyzed hundreds of cases involving potential nuclear threats. It is one of seven emergency response groups operated by NNSA, and members work in the field alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Domestic Emergency Support Team or the State Department's Foreign Emergency Support Team.

NEST in the NNSA emergency response context. The seven NNSA emergency response teams include the Aerial Measuring System, which detects, measures, and tracks radioactive material; the Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability, which monitors and predicts the release of hazardous materials into the atmosphere; the Accident Response Group, which supports the successful resolution of U.S. nuclear weapons accidents anywhere in the world; the

Nuclear Emergency Search Team members install radiation-sensing equipment into a helicopter at the NEST facility at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
Nuclear Emergency Search Team members install radiation-sensing equipment into a helicopter at the NEST facility at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center, which coordinates radiological efforts on the federal, state, and local levels; the Radiological Assistance Program, the usual NNSA first responder in radiological emergencies; the Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site, which trains respondents and provides medical treatment for injuries resulting from radiation exposure; and NEST, which provides specialized technical expertise in response to nuclear or radiological terrorist incidents.

Established in 1975, NEST has addressed a variety of possible nuclear threats. For example, in its first year of operation, NEST responded to a threat by a group claiming that it would detonate a nuclear device in New York City if it were not given $30 million. Police provided what was purportedly a payment, but actually a lure for the criminals, who failed to materialize—along with their alleged bomb. NEST has analyzed the credibility of some 60 extortion threats involving nuclear materials, 25 reactor threats, and 20 non-nuclear extortion threats. It has also investigated well over 650 reports of illegal sales involving nuclear materials.

NEST at work. As of the early twenty-first century, NEST had some 70 responders and a larger pool of approximately 900 personnel on call. Operational teams of 45 or fewer people, including chemists, physicists, mathematicians, communications specialists, and technicians, are equipped with handheld detectors. In addition to four helicopters and three planes, they have vans fitted with detectors and diagnostic equipment. A support department even supplies fake commercial artwork to disguise NEST vans.

Not surprisingly, NEST's services have been in particularly high demand since September 11, 2001. In January 2002, the administration of President George W. Bush called on NEST to search large U.S. cities for a possible "dirty bomb"—a crude nuclear device—that was a reported tool of the terrorist organization al Qaeda. NEST teams, equipped with gamma and neutron detectors, could blend into crowds by disguising their equipment as briefcases, backpacks, or even beer coolers. In February, 2002, NEST teams also quietly provided support to security efforts at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.



Hall, Mimi. "Preparations Underway for Radiation Attack." USA Today. (July 8, 2002): A2.

Waller, Douglas. "The Secret Bomb Squad." Time. (March 18, 2002): 23.


National Nuclear Security Administration. < > (March 7, 2003).

Oppenheimer, Andy. Nuclear Incident Response in the U.S. Jane's International Security News. < _1_n.shtml > (March 26, 2003).

Render Safe, Defusing a Nuclear Emergency. Los Alamos National Laboratory. Fall 2002. < > (March 26, 2003).


Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability (ARAC)
Domestic Emergency Support Team, United States
FEST (United States Foreign Emergency Support Team)
NNSA (United States National Nuclear Security Administration)
Radiological Emergency Response Plan, United States Federal

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