A Christmas Island Tale

Dedicated to the Memory of Jack Livingston (1921-2007) and all the other ‘Rocket-Men’ of the Pacific

Jack Livingston told me about Christmas Island.  He’d been there in the 1960s with Holmes &

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Narver preparing the abandoned island for the scientists, engineers and technicians who would run the atmospheric nuclear tests that were part of Operation Dominic.  It was the late 1980s when Jack told me his tale.  He was sitting in his office on Johnston Island and I had wandered in from down the hall to see him.  Before we venture to Christmas Island, there are some things you ought to know about Jack.

Jack managed ‘real property’ on Johnston Atoll and did so in accordance with the Air Force regulations on such things.  Holmes & Narver, the company we both worked for, was a Department of Energy, DOE, Management and Operating Contractor, but on Johnston Island, we worked for the Air Force.  Of course, an on-island DOE Contracting Officer Technical Representative made certain the contract

Mike Boat

Mike Boat

boundaries were maintained.  I was in Jack’s office because a rule change that expanded the definition of real property was being met with some resistance.  Jack was not happy.  He kept track of all real property on 3X5 ruled index cards and his space looked like a rogue library card catalogue.  If, however, you needed a 40-year old propeller for a Mike Boat, Jack could produce one in no time from one of the many places he squirreled away inventory.

Jack had his back to me as I walked into his office.  He was in uniform; an Aloha shirt-out-and a pair of Bermuda shorts, brown shoes, white socks.  Our offices were inside an old, windowless, steel building.  The mish mash of ages and types of fluorescent lights coupled with the smell of ancient paper in a humid environment provided a unique ambience.  Jack growled at me about having to keep track of chairs on an island.  He was old then, mid to late 60s, wizened and bent with curly gray hair and a yellowed complexion from too many bouts with his liver.  His face bore deep furrows born of 40 years of curing in the tropical sun.  I suggested we procure an automated property management system like the government wanted us to do.  He turned then, and I braced for the onslaught.  The old curmudgeon was smiling but there was an edge in his voice as he commanded me, “sit”.  I sat, struggling to remember I was supposed to be the boss and in charge.  Jack advised me that he and a small team had prepared, inventoried and cataloged Christmas Island for nuclear testing in a very short time period without so much as a telephone and certainly no damn computers. Continue reading

A Bikini Night

Sunset over lagoon at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Micronesia.

Sunset over lagoon at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Micronesia.

Those who know me are aware that I am a slow learner – a pedantic, trudging engineer who likes toys and shiny things.  It is a thread woven through the fabric of my being.  In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of attending the big Atlas Foundation meeting back East courtesy of an innovative free thinker, Ricardo Valenzuela.  Among those people, I found myself at home with the ideas and philosophies that had nettled my soul and kept me restless for decades before and I knew for a certainty that I was not alone with my books and philosophy.  Many of the people I met and admired were going on from the Atlas conference to the Mont Pelerin Society meeting. My chosen profession, Cold War itinerant engineer supporting the government, was a source of unabated internal conflict; the locus of my personal philosophy at odds with the locus of my profession.

A few days ago I read Alberto Benegas-Lynch, Jr.’s article On Selling Classical Liberalism in this month’s The Freeman published by FEE.  As a former board member of the Mont Pelerin Society, it seemed reasonable that he might provide some insight in how to communicate ‘my’ thoughts without someone throwing something at me.  The insight was definitely there.  Benegas-Lynch’s observations on the difference between selling goods and ideas were as clear as the finest crystal and as well crafted.  Why did understanding come now, when I am well into my sixth decade, rather than the time I most needed it – on Bikini when Charles asked me for advice and I had little to give.

As the day surrendered its light and heat that summer in 1991, the stars reported to their appointed posts to cast the world in a less harsh relief.  About an hour earlier, I had left my teammates barbecuing the tuna caught on the last trip out in the boat.  I set out from the project camp at a good clip headed for my favorite spot on the ocean side of the north end of Bikini Atoll. It was a bit of a hike and no one would miss me for a long time; tales and beer were already flowing and the fish was on the barby. It was a rare chance for private reflection.  The outer reef broke the waves and the tide was low.  The tidal pool I occupied was warm and the gentle surges from the great Pacific soothed my tired, aching body.  My mind focused on what I would say to Charles the next day. But wait, there’s more!

First Lightning – The Soviet Nuclear Surprise

Startsi are the elder statesmen, the teachers, in the Russian Orthodox Church.  Of all the

St. Seraphim

St. Seraphim

Startsi, the most famous Staret in all of Russia is St. Seraphim of Sarov born in Kursk in 1759.  “It was said he could supply answers before visitors had time to ask their questions. He counseled tough cases of conscience and reportedly worked miracles, healing the sick” according to Dan Graves in his article St. Seraphim of Sarov, Renowned Staret.  It is ironic that Sarov would be transformed from a center of traditional learning and healing to a center of the new physics and philosophy of ‘uncertainty’; the birthplace of the Soviet’s first nuclear device.


Sarov’s story is as old as government.  At the very beginning of the Cold War, Sarov, the St. Seraphim monastery grounds, and the surrounding area were closed and rebranded as

Location Map for Arzamas-16

Location Map for Arzamas-16

Arzamas-16, the seat of nuclear physics for the old Soviet Union.  The town of Sarov occupies only eleven square miles of the 90 square mile hexagonally shaped Arzamas-16 area, which also houses research and production facilities.  “…Arzamas-16 is surrounded by an outer defensive ring 25 miles out that is carefully monitored. The city inside that ring is surrounded by a double, barbed-wire fence that is patrolled by the Russian army. Uniformed troops from the Russian Ministry of the Interior patrol the inner city. Areas that house nuclear materials are surrounded by multiple fences and walls, and the spaces between the fences are plowed and patrolled. Sensors are in place to detect unauthorized intruders….”[1]

The Soviet move on Sarov was similar to the action taken by the U.S. government to build its nuclear infrastructure in Tennessee, Nevada, Alabama, Washington state, and elsewhere; the people who lived there were moved out and the military, scientific community and their workers moved in.  Maps were sanitized and the veil of secrecy dropped.   Arzamas-16 was the intellectual and industrial birthplace of the first Soviet nuclear test device and the brainchild of Igor Kurchatov, the Soviet’s first nuclear program director.  In the final analysis, Arzamas-16  represented a network of “secret cities” and research labs But wait, there’s more!

Breaking Bad – The Last Hurrah

A colleague recently suggested atomic veterans as a topic of conversation.  He called my attention to Breaking Bad’s lead character Walter White’s lung cancer, which drives the plot

Walter White

Walter White

and the series finale on AMC.  White’s disease was, perhaps, ordained by exposure at Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Cold War.  Our television was donated to a worthy cause about three years ago because no matter where I placed it in the decorating scheme (not my forte) the beast occupied the household’s center stage.  I caught up through the Internet.  The source of White’s lung cancer is an aside of the series adding depth and context to the fabric of the story. For tens of thousands of cold war atomic veterans, however, cancer is the last hurrah of the Cold War legacy; for many, it is centerpiece of their deaths.

Wikipedia accurately, but incompletely, describes atomic veterans as “United States military veterans who were exposed to ionizing radiation while stationing in the Japanese cities of

Soldiers Watching A-Bomb at Yucca Flat, Nevada. This photo is shot 'Dog' and was a 21.5 kiloton device dropped from a B-50 Bomber in the Buster-Jangle series of tests on November 1, 1951. Soldiers had to be seated on the desert floor or else the blast would have knocked them down. This photo was also published in the November 12, 1951 Life Magazine

Soldiers Watching A-Bomb at Yucca Flat, Nevada. This photo is shot ‘Dog’ and was a 21.5 kiloton device dropped from a B-50 Bomber in the Buster-Jangle series of tests on November 1, 1951. Soldiers had to be seated on the desert floor or else the blast would have knocked them down. This photo was also published in the November 12, 1951 Life Magazine

Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the American occupation of Japan before 1946 (including certain veterans who were Prisoners of War there) or who took part in atmospheric nuclear tests (1945-1962)….”  Atomic veterans are those individuals, uniformed military and civilian, who developed nuclear physics, chemistry, and the supporting sciences we have today.  The exposures took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Exposure to the required ionizing radiation also took place at test beds in Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Alabama, California, Washington state, Tennessee, New York, the Marshall Islands, Christmas Island, Johnston Atoll, and other places where scientists possessed of brilliantly creative minds formed wild hypotheses that the U.S. government and its military wanted tested.  There were an estimated 195,000 military atomic veterans[1] and probably that many civilians in the DOE database.  The good news for the U.S. government is that military atomic veterans are dying very quickly now.  The average age of those left standing is 86.

The atomic veterans story’s plot lashes government bureaucrats, military leaders, scientists, and workers together in a frenzied dance to an altered state of reality where everything was wonderful.  There are two truly innocent victim groups exempted from this dance; the uniformed military personnel following orders and the indigenous populations that were exposed.  We, in the atomic worker category, may not have had possession of the information from which we could derive an informed opinion, but we did know that our jobs were inherently dangerous.  We chose to do the work for a variety of reasons; it paid well and regularly, it was fun, interesting, and exciting, and it was important for our country.  What we did not fully understand was the check we signed included our lives.  But wait, there’s more!

Now I am become death….

Author:  Cold War Britain The History of Britains Cold War

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was a Theoretical Physicist and “Coordinator of Rapid Rupture”

Corbis Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein, circa the 1940s

Corbis Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein, circa the 1940s

at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  His main role was to calculate the propagation of a fast neutron chain for an Atomic weapon. For that reason he is often referred to as the “Father” of the Atomic Bomb.

Born in New York in 1904, Oppenheimer studied at Harvard and later Christ’s College, Cambridge with a particular interest in Quantum Mechanics, theory of Electrons and Positrons and developed the Oppenheimer–Phillips process of Nuclear Fusion. In 1941 he was recruited to work on a top-secret crash program to create an Atomic Bomb, The Manhattan Project. Brigadier General Leslie Groves was chosen as Director of the project and he chose Oppenheimer to lead the secret weapons Laboratory.  In seeking a location Oppenheimer was drawn to New Mexico, where he had a Ranch, and Groves and Oppenheimer settled on a location near Santa Fe which was the site of a private boys school called the Los Alamos Ranch School. In 1942 the US Army purchased the school and the surrounding land and work began to build Los Alamos National Laboratory. Continue reading

Syrian Sands Thru the Hourglass

Literature abounds with references to the hourglass. On one end of the spectrum, W.B. Yeats, an important player in early 20th Century literature wrote a play, The Hourglass, in

Courtesy of the Library of congress

Courtesy of the Library of congress

1903. While at the other end of the spectrum, Hourglass, a Syrian heavy metal band formed in 2002, released two, apparently popular, full length albums. An hourglass is used as a lead-in to a popular daily soap opera in the U.S. and by myriad poets to depict deep introspection.  The hourglass is a significant peace keeper during games of strategy and tactics. Some, like me, just like the physical being of hourglasses; end-to-end sealed wine glasses connected by a small straw through which an exact measure of sand flows at a determined rate to mark the passage of time.  An afternoon spent observing the movement of sand between the vessels of an hourglass may shed a small measure of understanding about the world around us.

U.S. brinkmanship, under the guise of peace maker, is a game refined and polished during the Cold War (1947-1991). It is a strategy game the U.S. has frequently and successfully used to align the ‘Free World’ for engagements in  mini-wars to liberate some part of the world from an evil government or its leader. While labeled a strategy game, the plays have become so familiar that the game may appear more like a child’s Tic-Tac-Toe game than Days of Wonder’s Memoir ’44 game, which “requires strategic card play, timely dice rolling and an aggressive, yet flexible battle plan to achieve victory.[1]  Recently, the U.S. engaged brinkmanship with Kim Jong-un and North Korea but the game evaporated in the exploding Benghazi scandal. But wait, there’s more!

The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning

This is the first in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991).

A unique Cold War tactical weapon, the CIA was created by President Truman who did not like or

Harry S Truman 33rd President of the United States In office  April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953

Harry S Truman
33rd President of the United States
In office
April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953

trust the quality and timeliness of the intelligence he was receiving. The agency was born to serveone master, the president, not the people.  The birth of the CIA was spawned by nasty surprises beginning with Truman’s sudden rise to the oval office upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in Warm Springs, GA on April 12, 1945.[1] Truman and Roosevelt were estranged bedfellows thrown together to win an election. For his part, Roosevelt reportedly did not hold Truman’s intellect in high regard and Truman did not like Roosevelt’s politics. Certainly a portion of their mutual disdain was caused by then Senator Truman who chaired the Truman Committee. The committee had exposed considerable waste, fraud, and abuse by government defense contractors during WWII. It is not surprising that the two did not meet often and, in general, Truman was excluded from cabinet and most other high level meetings during his vice presidency. Continue reading

Able Annie

Able Annie was my kind of woman. Big, tough, and powerful, she packed a lot of heat. An enormous, unwieldy cannon, Able Annie and her kin could fire a sixteen kiloton nuclear projectile,

Able Annie, fort Sill (photo courtesy of tr4br)

Able Annie, fort Sill (photo courtesy of tr4br)

about one and a half times the yield of Little Boy, about fifteen miles. While Little Boy, the Hiroshima Bomb, was rated fifteen kilotons it significantly under-yielded.[1] Annie was test fired once in Nevada back in 1953 and the show she gave earned her the nickname Atomic Annie. Her big moment at the Nevada Proving Grounds was immediately followed by retirement. According to the Department of Energy, DOE, twenty cannons were eventually manufactured; most were deployed to West Germany, six to Okinawa, and one may have been sent to Korea. Of those, four remain and are on display. The original Atomic Annie is in the Fort Sill Museum;[2] three others can be seen at the National Atomic Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico;[3] Fort Riley, Kansas,[4] and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.[5] Atomic Annie was an anachronism in her own time.

Atomic Annie’s ancestry dates back to 1944 when the Army determined it needed a tactical 240 mm cannon for use on a battlefield or in a specific theater, which are defined operations areas under local military command. The Army craved exceptionally big cannons that could be set up quickly without having to move large quantities of dirt to emplace it.  Once nuclear weapons were proved up, the Army modified the original specifications to 280 mm to accommodate the W-9 nuclear shell (the W-9 is a modification of a nuclear bomb design, the TX8). The Army wanted a tactical nuke.

The subject of whether or not a nuclear weapon is tactical or strategic creates endless hours of debate amongst military historians, students, and enthusiasts who have nothing better to do. Days, weeks and months of negotiation time have been spent at treaty tables in Geneva considering whether this or that nuclear configuration is tactical or strategic. It all comes down to how the package is delivered according to the Air University’s Mark Stout. “… from a practical point of view, a strategic nuclear weapon is…well, it’s one thats delivered strategically. That means delivered via ICBMs, SLBMs, or heavy bombers. Tactical nuclear weapons, it follows, are those that are delivered using battlefield-type delivery systems over battlefield-type distances. However, since the size of a battlefield can vary greatly all we can really say is that they are not strategically-delivered.”[6] You will notice that the Navy is left out of this discussion. In 1991, nukes were removed from surface ships.[7] Some submarines carry nukes that are delivered on the sharp end of a missile. Are they tactical? Yes. Are they strategic? Yes. A nasty little problem that is resolved on a case-by-case basis.

By May 1953, Atomic Annie had been manufactured, delivered, and checked out at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. The Army had also successfully test fired several conventional artillery rounds. She was prepared and shipped by rail to Nellis AFB in Nevada for her participation in the Grable event. Meanwhile at the AEC’s Nevada Proving Grounds, Operation Upshot-Knothole was well underway. A series of eleven nuclear tests conducted between March 17, 1953 and June 4, 1953, Operation Upshot-Knothole was designed specifically “test nuclear devices for possible inclusion in the U.S. arsenal, to improve military tactics, equipment, and training, and to study civil defense needs.”[8] The nuclear cannon, Atomic Annie, was the tenth shot of the eleven shot series and its codename was Grable.

In early May, 1953, Atomic Annie and one other nuclear cannon were placed on their specially designed Kenworth transports and made ready for the trip. The two cannons were considered a

The Kenworth transporters

The Kenworth transporters

battery. Each cannon was accompanied by several vehicles and tenders. The Kenworth vehicle used the same techniques as a large fire department ladder truck; two cabs, each with its own motive power. Beginning in 1950, the Kenworth Motor Truck Company manufactured  33 Front and 33 Rear trucks; each powered by a Continental AO-895-4 six-cylinder engine, with a maximum output of 375 hp and a top speed of 45 mph. The front Truck weighed 19 tons and the rear truck 18 tons.[9] Once the gun was loaded, the caravan arrangement weighed a whopping 84 tons. The convoy must have assumed a parade like atmosphere as it left Nellis en route north to the Nevada Proving Grounds. The word is people gathered along the route like a flash audience.

The Grable shot at 8:30 a.m. on May 25, 1953 was the test firing of the nuclear cannon nicknamed Atomic Annie. The projectile detonated 524 feet above Area 5, Frenchman Flat. The mushroom

Able Annie, the Grable event, May 25, 1953. Smoke trails to the right are from rockets carrying photographic devices used to measure the shock waves created by the blast. Note the 'double mushroom'. (Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office)

Able Annie, the Grable event, May 25, 1953. Smoke trails to the right are from rockets carrying photographic devices used to measure the shock waves created by the blast. Note the ‘double mushroom’. (Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office)

cloud from the Grable event was double-headed and dramatic. While the cannon itself was huge,the gun was so well balanced, it could be aimed without the use of hydraulics. The nuke was a W-9, 280 mm tactical nuclear weapon. Physically imposing, the shell was eleven inches in diameter (279.4mm) and fifty four and a third inches long; it weighed about 800 pounds with a range of about fifteen miles.  Between April 1952 and November 1953 about eighty W-9s were manufactured. In 1957, the W-9 was replaced by the Mark 19, which was two hundred pounds lighter with a range of about nineteen miles. The Mark 19 ended its service life in 1963.[10]  Both the W-9 and the Mark 19 are gun type nukes, which generally rely on a cylinder shaped device within which the initial reaction is controlled. The reaction is initiated by shooting a uranium 235 hollow bullet (to keep it sub-critical) into a uranium spike target (also sub-critical) using cordite as the accelerant. Once the two made contact, the nuke went critical so timing was everything. Even with the increased range, the exposure to the detail operating the cannon would have been extreme. Do not believe the propaganda to the contrary.

According to the DTRA Fact Sheet, about 650 DoD personnel participated in the Grable event. Simulations of bridges and other infrastructure were constructed at and around ground zero to judge the effects of the test shot. Sheep were used to simulate human effects from the shot. (See Footnote 8)

More than 2,600 exercise troops and over 700 observers participated in GRABLE. Observers, including members of each of the armed services, witnessed the shot from trenches 4,570 meters west of ground zero. After the shot, observers were to inspect the equipment display area, but because of a dust storm, they were unable to approach closer than 1,370 meters to ground zero. 

After observing the shot with other Desert Rock participants, the exercise troops were to attack two objectives located 2,400 meters southeast of ground zero and 2,800 meters east-southeast of ground zero. High winds and dust forced the troops to turn back about an hour after the attack began, although some troops did approach as close as 700 meters to the south of ground zero and were subsequently able to view the equipment display up to 450 meters from ground zero. 

For the damage effects evaluation at GRABLE, the 412th Engineer Construction Battalion excavated trenches, bunkers, and foxholes and constructed sections of bridging in the display area southeast of ground zero. The 3623rd Ordnance Company also placed military equipment in the area. Army personnel placed sheep and dosimetry instruments in these fortifications for use in medical and shielding evaluations. After the shot, engineer, ordnance, chemical, medical, and quartermaster teams evaluated the damage to equipment, animals, and fortifications. A veterinary officer and technician evaluated the effects of the detonation on the sheep, and a chemical team retrieved dosimetry instruments.

Why was the nuclear cannon ever considered? Times were different during the Cold War and nuclear weapons were new and exotic. All of the military services were looking at how tactical nukes

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier

might be used in battle. Atomic Annie and her ilk, like Davy Crockett, a tactical nuclear recoilless gun, were among the ideas that worked clumsily for a short time. According to the Federation of American Scientists, “These scenarios often seemed like nuclear battles because the weapons would be used to blow up troops, bridges or ships much like non-nuclear weapons. Such “tactical” uses were seen by some as a means to avoid escalation to use of strategic nuclear weapons, while others believed that any nuclear use would automatically escalate to strategic nuclear war.”[11] The Soviets, upon seeing Atomic Annie, wanted one of their very own-The Cold War my daddy is bigger than your daddy game-so they developed the Objeckt 271.

The Russians and President Obama remain committed to keeping tactical nukes in the arsenal. The US is worried about China’s actions and the Russians are worried about US actions. The US is considering a policy of absorbing a first nuclear strike without responding. Not a good idea in my book, but, then again, I am a Cold War warrior. The tactical nukes of yesteryear demanded that the troops run as far and as fast as they could away from where they were pointed after firing. While it was a poor plan, it was the best the military could muster. Today’s tactical nukes go farther and faster before detonation and are, perhaps, more survivable.

[Author’s note: There are two videos well worth watching. Trinity and Beyond, a documentary produced in 1995 is about 98 minutes long and can be viewed at http://www.hulu.com/watch/225009 .  The second is from the Nuclear Vault. It is about ten minutes long and deals solely with Atomic Annie; The 280 MM Gun At The Nevada Proving Ground http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9F-l_3eLcE ]

[1] Physics Today; Henry E. Heatherly; University of Louisiana; February 2003  page 14; Hiroshima Bomb’s Explosive Yield Less than Reported; http://physicstoday.org/journals/doc/PHTOAD-ft/vol_56/iss_2/14_1.shtml?bypassSSO=1

[2] U.S. Army Field Artillery and Fort Sill Museum; http://sill-www.army.mil/famuseum/

[3] The National Museum of Nuclear Science History; http://www.nuclearmuseum.org/

[4] Roadside America; Atomic Cannon; http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2102

[5] Army Ordnance Museum; http://www.ordmusfound.org/

[6] The Wright Stuff; Air University;  13 May 2010; Mark Stout; http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/nssc/op-ed/tactical_versus_strategic_distinction.pdf

[8] Defense Threat Reduction Agency; Fact Sheet; July 2007; http://www.dtra.mil/documents/ntpr/factsheets/Upshot_Knothole.pdf

[9] The Atomic Cannon Cold War Deterrent; http://theatomiccannon.com/history

[10] US Nuclear Weapons the Secret History; Chuck Hansen; http://www.amazon.com/Us-Nuclear-Weapons-Secret-History/dp/0517567407

[11] Federation of American Scientists; Special Report No 3; May 2012; Non-Strategic Nuclear; HANS M. KRISTENSEN; http://www.fas.org/_docs/Non_Strategic_Nuclear_Weapons.pdf

Nuclear Emergency Search Team

Who are you going to call if you misplace a nuke or a nuclear powered satellite comes crashing down or some terrorist gets all creative and crazy with radioactive sources from medical diagnostic equipment? Either the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, or Department of Homeland Security, DHS, comes to mind.  Okay, good so far, but who do they call? The next call, if they are smart,



would be to the Department of Energy, DOE, to activate NEST, the acronym for the Nuclear Emergency Search Team. As with all things federal, names change with the regularity of the seasons and NEST, as of now, stands for Nuclear Emergency Support Team. In the mid-1990s my job description included the management, a term I use loosely with incredibly brilliant scientists and engineers, of the Remote Sensing Laboratory, RSL, housed at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. The DOE contractor managed RSL, a NEST component.

Originally organized in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission, The DOE’s predecessor, as the Aerial Measurements Operations, the RSL is still located at Nellis AFB. RSL was established to

Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis AFB

Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis AFB

provide a prompt response to radiological emergencies anywhere in the world. In 1976, during the Bicentennial, an additional RSL site was established at Maryland’s Andrews AFB.  The Bicentennial introduced an opportunity for political terrorism and the US ramped-up its East Coast Counterterrorism capability within several agencies including DOE. As part of a rapid deployment, world-wide response team, RSL’s team is cross-trained and on-call 24/7 to provide; radiation detection, surveillance, monitoring, and analysis, high speed telemetry, geographic information systems, and, of course, photos and videos of all the fun being had.

Business as usual was the RSL order of the day for Wednesday, December 4, 1996. Christmas decorations were showing up here and there, my favorite physicist and engineer were not bickering, catalogs were discreetly scattered about for fellow employees to support various school and club projects and everyone was free of the tension from the contract take-over, which included a mandatory ten percent cut in numbers of employees. In my office at the North Las Vegas DOE facility, the phone line from RSL had not rung once that Wednesday. The silence continued after work as well, which was a bit eerie. I managed several operational units and usually some train was going off the track somewhere. Zero telephone calls meant an uninterrupted meal and the ability to communicate with the family in complete sentences.

The phone ringer pierced my consciousness at 3:30 a.m. and I hit the snooze alarm twice before figuring out it was the wrong torture implement. The call from my DOE counterpart informed me that RSL response team had been activated and placed on a readiness hold because First Lady Hillary Clinton was in Bolivia. I was dressed, pouring a cup of coffee and debating whether or not to contact the company president before I realized that the information made absolutely no sense. I am well-trained; the client calls and I haul even if I haven’t a clue why. The early hour did not surprise or alarm me since the people on the East Coast are generally unaware of time zones and all calls of this nature emanated from there. The only other person I knew with certainty was awake in Las Vegas at that hour, gamblers and partiers excepted, was the DOE guy so I called back.

The focus sharpened considerably when DOE explained that the First Lady was in Bolivia meeting with other First Ladies of the Americas[1] when she was told that bits of radioactive materials were arriving in La Paz open-air markets and were selling smartly. I was aware that a satellite had returned abruptly from orbit but believed it had crashed into the Pacific Ocean off of Chile’s

A typical day on deployment.

A typical day on deployment.

northern coast. It seems that the satellite had dropped important pieces of itself across Bolivia’s high plains, the Altiplano, and, probably across Chile’s Atacama Desert. Mrs. Clinton had offered the services of the RSL to the Bolivian government. That was a revelation. I had no idea that the First Lady had that authority and said as much. I was squared-away smartly with a reminder that Mrs. Clinton was no ordinary First Lady. The real aggravation was that the CIA was calling the shots and those spooks were, in my opinion, not fun to deal with. CIA briefings are always good; filled with fun, facts and folklore. Entry briefings are conducted by the CIA’s personable extroverts. CIA debriefings, on the other hand, are not fun and are not conducted by personable extroverts.

The idea of the team spending Christmas overflying the Altiplanos in Bolivia and Chile was not amusing; beginning with the landing at the La Paz, Bolivia airport, which is downright scary. The camp would have to be established at very high altitude and everyone would be sick as dogs until their bodies adjusted. Unfortunately emergencies are not engineered at convenient times and everyone was raring to get going. It had been a long time between deployments. The Bolivian drill was a hurry up and wait exercise that lasted several days; yes, no, maybe was the dispatch. Aircraft were made ready with instrumentation and discarded for longer-range military aircraft. Equipment was calibrated. Gear was checked and re-checked but the wait went on and on. When Chile responded with an emphatic no to using their airspace, RSL stood down. The Chilean government was not, it seems, keen on help from any three letter U.S. agency. They said they would handle the debris field themselves, thank you very much. I presume they did.

Life as a component of NEST is not the stuff of movies but it is interesting. The federal government had been concerned about loose nuclear devices from the late 1940s but responses were individualized based on the incident. An attempt to extort money by threatening a nuclear detonation in Boston was the event that triggered the formation of NEST, a DOE national laboratory and contractor team from Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia.  According to National Security Archives’ 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.” [2]

In addition to extortion, the U.S. had experienced the loss of nuclear bombs through accidents that occurred in the 1960s in Palomares, Spain and Thule, Greenland. During the Nixon administration nuclear power plants rose to the surface as did the use of radioactive sources for dirty bombs. At its formation, NEST began the rigorous process of mapping out protocols and developing equipment for responses to potential disasters from these causes as well. The hard work paid off when a Soviet Cosmos 954 nuclear powered satellite re-entered the atmosphere and crashed in Canada’s Northwest Territory giving birth to Operation Morning Light. It remains one of the few, full NEST deployments and it had all of the dramatic attributes of a great movie.  The old-timers loved to talk about this deployment; it was exciting, challenging and a big win for NEST. The details provided by the National Security Archives provide the rest of the story.

Somehow, the Soviets forgot to mention that a very big, 8,800 pound satellite powered by 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium 235 was in a destabilized orbit and going to crash. The Soviet reactor, which powered the satellite, used a fission process that would result in some very bad actors, like radioactive strontium, cesium and iodine, surviving re-entry. Fortunately some alert folks picked up on the satellite’s looming demise and projections were hurriedly made to discover its projected crash site. North America ended up the prime candidate for receiving the failing satellite and NEST was activated, but a command decision was made not to worry the American people with this news. Certain governments, however, like Canada, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand and Japan were read-in on the dirty little secret. Although everybody, DOD, EPA, NSC, CIA, State Department, FPA and EPA, was in on the game, DOE was in operational control at the request of the NSC.

The Cosmos 954 re-entered the earth’s atmosphere around 7:00 a.m. EST on January 24, 1978 just over Canada’s Charlotte Islands. For the next three minutes it disintegrated and dropped

Baker Lake

Baker Lake

pieces from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. People in Yellowknife and along the Hay River watched the satellite burn through the dark January skies lighting up the Northwest Territories for the party that would follow. By January 26, 1978, NEST had its first boots on the ground.

Over the next four months, NEST combed a large part of the 15,000 square mile area using information gathered at each phase to narrow and concentrate the search. As exciting as the operation was, first blood was not to be theirs. The very first piece of radioactive debris was discovered by a couple of guys traveling by dog sled along the Thelon River. They were participating in a six person trek from the Yukon to Great Slave Lake through the Northwest Territory. Go figure.

The Operation Morning Light was over by April 2, 1978. In the end, the team collected a large

Thelon River just above where the first radioactive pieces were found.

Thelon River just above where the first radioactive pieces were found.

quantity of radioactive and non-radioactive debris. In conclusion, DOE stated that the radioactive core disintegrated, that the search area was accurate, and that it was highly probable that most of the radioactive material had been found. The full complement of about 600 skilled scientists, engineers, technicians and support staff participated and, as the lessons were learned, they built them into the process. A large variety of aircraft from Hueys and Chinooks to KC-135s and Argus C-107s provided the instrumentation platforms and logistics support. Icebreakers and vans hauled people and supplies. The Canadian government and U.S. government cooperated to secure the area and keep the people informed. By most measures Operation Morning Light was a success. As for the participants?  The ones I talked to in Nevada fondly remembered an exciting, exhilarating, very cold time. They felt they had participated in mitigating what might have been a human and environmental disaster.

As with many programs, NEST resources and skill sets are dwindling. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, NEST, like many operations, has become far more secretive. That is not always a good thing. Once the cloak of secrecy is pulled around such a group, there is a loss of accountability. Whether or not NEST can respond to a disaster similar in type or scale to the Cosmos 954 is in question. They, like so many others are at the mercy of a behemoth, the Department of Homeland Security, and success is likely to be a real crap shoot.


Department of Energy; Remote Sensing Laboratory; http://www.nv.doe.gov/library/factsheets/DOENV_1140.pdf

Department of Energy; Cybersecurity Collaborations Symposium – September 11, 2012; The Remote Sensing Laboratory; http://hrc.unlv.edu/cybersecurity/symposium/2012/guss.pdf

Department of Energy; National Nuclear Security Administration; Nuclear Emergency Support Team; http://www.nv.doe.gov/library/factsheets/NEST.pdf

The George Washington University; National Security Archive’s “Nuclear Vault”; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb267/


[1] Ocala Star Banner; Associated Press; December 3, 1996, John King; Hillary Urges Family Planning; http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&dat=19961203&id=2yhRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=hwcEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6808,3340143

[2] The National Archives; Edited by Jeffrey T. Richelson; The Nuclear Emergency Search Team, 1974-1996; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb267/

Wizard’s Chess

The pieces on the geopolitical chess board are in play in all three dimensions. Politically, nations are reacting to cultures in transition. Economically, there is a reordering of monetary and commodity values. Militarily, there is movement on a global scale. The tension mounts. The fishmongers ramp-up the volume as they compete for our attention with their wares wrapped in newsprint, byte segments and blog-tissue. The neurons that, in a single black box fleck of time, take data and make information we can understand, are fairly glowing with activity. Scandals riddle the federal government. Gold is dropping like a rock and oil is skyrocketing. The U.S. is hunting Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Egypt is in flames. North Korea is playing games. India and China are facing off. So much is happening simultaneously, it is difficult to focus the present picture of our little globe. We humans do like our patterns and pictures to help us understand how events impact us individually. What is going on?

Is there, as some believe, a conspiracy of the global elite? It is no theory that a group of elite people, the Bilderberg Group, representing “government, finance, industry, labour, education and communications”[1] have been meeting annually to discuss the world situation for over fifty years. The Bilderberg Group even summons individuals from the bourgeoisie to attend from time-to-time. In Montreal, they interviewed President Obama before his first run. While I have no doubt they would like and, perhaps, even try to be puppet masters, there are too many variables. Humans, as individuals and groups of individuals, are too unpredictable.  On the other hand, it would not make sense to discount the Bilderberg Group and their agenda. There is no doubt that the members are players on the global stage and specific initiatives, such as the United Nations Agenda 21, are integrated into plans and vigorously promoted.

What is the problem with the UN’s Agenda 21 and its benign label of ‘Sustainable Development’? “Agenda 21, Sustainable Development, is the action plan implemented worldwide to inventory and control all land, all water, all minerals, all plants, all animals, all construction, all means of production, all energy, all education, all information, and all human beings in the world.  INVENTORY AND CONTROL.”[2]—Rosa Koire.  For a start, it removes resources from the hands of individuals and places them in the hands of a bureaucracy and it herds people into central population centers. Agenda 21 is the antithesis of the founding principles of the U.S., the concept of Natural Law. “Life, faculties, production — in other words, individuality, liberty, property — this is man.” Frédéric Bastiat, The Law (written in 1850). The U.S. Agenda 21 process is well underway in central planning processes.

If not a global puppet master, what then? Wizard’s Chess in three dimensions-political, economic, and military- appears to be the game of choice.  In Wizard’s Chess, the pieces move of their own

Let the games begin.

Let the games begin.

accord when commanded by the player. “When a piece is taken, it is removed by the attacking piece, often in a barbaric manner where the losing piece is smashed violently by the winning piece.”[3] Depending upon the number of players, the chess board can become a chaotic place.

China, the Wizard’s Rook, is trying the wings of its newly found economic growth. With the tentative measure of placing troops in Mali, China is stepping off-continent. At the economic chess board, China is also ‘stepping out’, broadening its horizons with arms sales according to Reuters. “China’s volume of weapons exports between 2008 and 2012 rose 162 percent compared with the previous five-year period, with its share of the global arms trade rising from 2 percent to 5 percent, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.”[4] For instance, China’s recent sale of missiles to Turkey has NATO all abuzz.[5]

China is busy taking care of business politically as well. Overcoming past bad blood with Russia, China is reaching out for an alliance. The Diplomat points out that managing expectations about the relationship; expanding bilateral trade in energy and arms; and cooperation on international security affairs was the focus of a March 2013 conference between Russia’s Putin and China’s Jinping.[6] In the Indian Ocean, China is building harbors for trade but according to Stimson’s Ellen Laipson, “China’s maritime objectives in shipbuilding and port construction around the Indian Ocean are driven by commercial interests, although it’s reasonable to assume that the large investments could later evolve or be adapted for military purposes.”[7]

While the U.S. is the reigning superpower in the region, its light is fading. Combinations of other countries, like India, Pakistan, China, and the Koreas, are moving their respective chess pieces to fill in the voids and take up the slack. The U.S. is, arguably, the largest super power the world has ever seen. For the decades it engaged the Cold War (1947-1991), it grew to be a full service super

Waiting in the wings.

Waiting in the wings.

power provider. It built infrastructure, protected and manipulated countries without conquest, bolstered, bought and traded its way to its objectives, fought political wars, and ‘policed’ the world.  The U.S. played its pawns; installed and toppled leaders, bought and sold countries, and befriended and betrayed rogue groups. The U.S. may be a poor empire builder but she is a great super power who, until recently, controlled the seven seas. She is the Wizard’s queen and she is on the run. No one with any wisdom, however, would count the queen in check.

Russia, the Wizard’s Bishop, is on the move, double-time, since Vladimir Putin re-ascended the presidency. Putin does not trust the U.S. and most in the U.S. do not trust Putin. Each side has valid reasons for their distrust. Putin senses that the U.S. is a tired super power and is moving to fill some of the void. Putin knows, as we all do, that the U.S. is strapped for cash as he bolsters his oil and gas resources and backs Syria’s Assad. Putin has noted the U.S.’s current penchant for kinder, softer tactics like ‘winning hearts and minds’ and ‘leading from behind’ as he backs Iran. Arming both hemispheres of the world, a business area traditionally under the almost exclusive control of the U.S., has become a pastime for Putin’s government. The Wizard’s Bishop and Rook have teamed up on some policy fronts. Their combined capabilities rival the Wizard Queen’s.

Others of the Wizard’s pawns are moving smartly to avoid becoming victims of the super-storm cells that are swirling about in an apparently random fashion. India has a rocket, Agni-V, which can accurately deliver a payload over 3,000 miles. Pakistan is redoubling its nuclear saber rattling in its dispute with India over the Kashmir region, a legacy of the colonial breakup. Of course, India is reciprocating. Venezuela is buying missiles and submarines. North Korea is bellowing about its nuclear capability. Brazil, if it doesn’t disintegrate, is an emerging giant and prepared to defend its position. The Arab conflicts, mostly a Shi’a/Sunni issue and a legacy of decolonization, are ripping the Middle East apart. Every player, except the U.S., is amassing gold bullion; a sign of coming monetary upheaval.  Bread baskets in countries across the world are being fortified with defenses; yet another sign of global insecurity.

The Wizard’s chess boards are chaotic on all three levels; political, economic, and military. While chaos is disconcerting and unsettling to the human psyche, creative solutions frequently precipitate from the mess. While the Wizard’s chess game is unfolding quickly, others are preparing to play the next game. The odds-makers cipher the probabilities and the poker players are amusing themselves shuffling the geopolitical deck.  If the old Queen is placed in check, the world will look different. The key to stability on all three levels of Wizard’s chess, is the behavior of the Queen. Can she withdraw to her color without sacrificing her power? At the moment it is dicey. As China and Russia emerge from socialism and communism to trade-based economies, the U.S. is rocketing headlong into that failed experiment. It has never been more important that the U.S. hold onto its founding principles for it is a dangerous game being played. If the U.S. Queen fails in her withdrawal strategy and is captured, the destruction will be monumental and cultures of the world will reel backwards.

[2] Behind the Green Mask; Rosa Koire; http://www.democratsagainstunagenda21.com/

[4] Reuters; China replaces Britain in world’s top five arms exporters: report; http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/18/us-china-arms-exports-idUSBRE92G0L120130318

[6] The Diplomat; April 12, 2013; A Russia-China Alliance Brewing?; http://thediplomat.com/2013/04/12/a-russia-china-alliance-brewing/

[7] International Business Times; June 27 2013; Ellen Laipson; New Geopolitics In The Indian Ocean Region?; http://www.ibtimes.com/new-geopolitics-indian-ocean-region-1326305