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
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 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.
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.” 
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
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.
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/