Authors: Jay Tilden (Deputy Undersecretary for Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation, US Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration) &
Dallas Boyd (senior advisor, US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation)
Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (https://thebulletin.org/premium/2023-03/nerds-ninjas-and-neutrons-the-story-of-the-nuclear-emergency-support-team/?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email)
This long essay by two American civil servants specialising in nuclear counterterrorism seems destined to become a multi-season Netflix series one day. The essay is about NEST, an obscure team within America’s Department of Energy whose job is to defuse nuclear devices. Contrary to what you might expect, these guys have actually been busy defusing nuclear devices across the world more often than you & I get to know about such things.
NEST was formed in 1974 after words of an embarrassing fiasco reached the White House: “In 1974, an extortionist had threatened to detonate a nuclear weapon in Boston unless given $200,000; the subsequent scramble to search for the bomb was a thoroughgoing debacle. Scientists and equipment arrived at different airports, and the team lacked tools as rudimentary as power drills to install the necessary radiation detectors in their hastily rented vans. President Gerald Ford, appalled by the shortcomings of the nation’s nuclear incident response posture, set in motion the creation of what would become NEST, to ensure that the government would not be caught flat-footed again…
So sensitive was the unit that three years would pass before Congress even learned of its formation. Jeffrey Richelson, the author of a book about NEST’s counter-weapons of mass destruction (WMD) mission, later observed, “If a similar organization did not exist in the real world, Hollywood probably would have created one.”
In the decades that followed, as nuclear weapons proliferated across the planet, NEST’s responsibilities grew and the skillsets of the people working in NEST widened: “As an umbrella entity, NEST would ultimately be responsible for responding to US nuclear weapon accidents, nuclear reactor emergencies, and other radiation contamination events. To perform these diverse missions an array of scientific disciplines was needed: spectroscopy, radiography, nuclear device assessment, atmospheric modeling, radiation dose assessment, and nuclear forensics, to name just a few…Its ranks include former military personnel, pilots, and specialists in maintenance, logistics, and communications who ensure the unit’s worldwide reach, often in unforgiving conditions. Indeed, NEST’s motto—“Scientifically Informed, Operationally Focused”—reflects the marriage of the laboratory and the field, whether the latter is an urban center or a swath of contaminated countryside.”
The author’s go on to highlight several tragic accidents that have taken place in America involving nuclear materials: “In one famous incident in 1946, scientists investigating the critical mass of plutonium performed a risky experiment in which two halves of a beryllium shell surrounding a plutonium “pit” were moved close together to measure the increased reaction rate. Physicist Louis Slotin used a screwdriver to keep the shells from completely closing, but one day the tool slipped, permitting the shells to fully close. The heightened reflectivity pushed the plutonium core toward criticality, exposing the scientists in the room to a burst of fast neutrons. Slotin, standing closest to the core, died an agonizing death nine days later.”
As one would expect, a big part of NEST’s work involves America’s vast pile of live nuclear bombs. Even reading about these nuclear accidents makes one’s jaw drop: “Other accidents would involve US nuclear weapons themselves. Referred to as “Broken Arrow” events, this category includes accidental nuclear launches, the non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon, and the jettisoning of a weapon in transit. More than 30 Broken Arrows occurred in the United States’ stockpile between the development of nuclear weapons in 1945 and the last such event in 1980. NEST’s Accident Response Group (ARG), made up of scientists with encyclopaedic knowledge of nuclear devices, was closely involved in the response to most of them.
The last Broken Arrow was perhaps the most harrowing. It began near Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980, when an Air Force technician descended into a silo housing a Titan missile, atop which was a W-53 warhead with a yield of nine megatons. Equipped with a heavy socket wrench, the airman was tasked to secure a nitrogen line to the missile’s oxidizer tank. At one point the socket fell from his wrench, ricocheted off a thrust mount, and pierced the missile’s fuel tank, which immediately began spewing fuel. Early the next morning the fuel exploded, hurling the 740-ton silo lid away and propelling the warhead into a ditch 100 feet from the silo. Only the warhead’s safety mechanisms prevented a detonation 500 times more powerful than Hiroshima.”
Just in case, you are one of those people who sleeps easily at night comfortable in the knowledge that nuclear weapons keep the world safe, this one’s for you: “Most Broken Arrow events had finite resolutions, but a handful continue to torment the government. One notable incident occurred off the coast of Georgia in 1958 when an F-86 fighter collided in mid-air with a B-47 bomber, onboard which was a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb. Fearful the weapon would detonate in an emergency landing, the crew jettisoned it into the sea near Tybee Island. After a nine-week search the bomb was declared “irretrievably lost,” and a subsequent Department of Energy analysis concluded that even if the weapon had survived intact, it was now resting 5 to 15 feet beneath the seabed….”
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