Nuclear Emergency Support Team

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The Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), formerly known as the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, is a team of scientists, technicians, and engineers operating under the United States Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Their task is to be "prepared to respond immediately to any type of radiological accident or incident anywhere in the world".[1]


Concerns over scenarios involving nuclear accidents or incidents on American soil are not recent. As early as the 1960s, officials were concerned that a nuclear weapon might be smuggled into the country, or that an airplane carrying a nuclear weapon might crash and contaminate surrounding areas.[2] In late 1974, President Gerald Ford was warned that the FBI received a communication from an extortionist wanting $200,000 (equivalent to $1,016,000 in 2018) after claiming that a nuclear weapon had been placed somewhere in Boston. A team of experts rushed in from the United States Atomic Energy Commission but their radiation detection gear arrived at a different airport. Federal officials then rented a fleet of vans to carry concealed radiation detectors around the city but forgot to bring the tools they needed to install the equipment. The incident was later found to be a hoax. However, the government's response made clear the need for an agency capable of effectively responding to such threats in the future. Later that year, President Ford created the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), which under the Atomic Energy Act is tasked with investigating the "illegal use of nuclear materials within the United States, including terrorist threats involving the use of special nuclear materials".[1]

One of its first responses was in Spokane, Washington on November 23, 1976. An unknown group called the "Days of Omega" had mailed an extortion threat claiming they would explode radioactive containers of water all over the city unless paid $500,000 (equivalent to $2,201,000 in 2018). Presumably, the radioactive containers had been stolen from the Hanford Site, less than 150 miles (240 km) to the southwest. NEST immediately flew in a support aircraft from Las Vegas and began searching for non-natural radiation, but found nothing. No one ever responded, despite the elaborate instructions given, or made any attempt to claim the (fake) money, which was kept under surveillance. Within days, the incident was deemed a hoax, though the case was never solved. To avoid panic, the public was not notified until a few years later.[3][4]


According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, NEST has the ability to deploy as many as 600 people to the scene of a radiological incident, though deployments do not usually exceed 45 people.[5] NEST has a variety of equipment (weighing up to 150 tons) and has the support of a small fleet of aircraft which includes four helicopters and three airplanes, all outfitted with detection equipment.

When an airborne response to an incident is underway, the Federal Aviation Administration grants NEST flights a higher control priority within the United States National Airspace System, designated with the callsign "FLYNET".


Since 1975, NEST has been warned of 125 nuclear terror threats and has responded to 30. All have been false alarms. While it is common belief that NEST does not have the technology to accurately detect nuclear threats within the noise of natural radiation, in fact it has had the capability to distinguish between man-made and natural radiation since the 1970s.[citation needed] At first, there were still some problems with this simple distinction, as man-made radiation also includes such things as medical radiation. A man under treatment for Graves' disease with radioactive iodine set off alarms in the New York City subway. After being strip-searched and interrogated he was sent on his way.[6]

Since its initial creation, the detection equipment has been improved and now data can be processed accurately enough to home in on the activity of any single nuclear element desired.

In popular culture[edit]

NEST is mentioned in the motion pictures Broken Arrow, The Peacemaker, The Manhattan Project, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Atomic Train and Vishwaroopam, as well as in the made-for-television film Special Bulletin and the television series 24 and NCIS: Los Angeles. NEST also appears in the books Gideon's Corpse by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Fifth Horseman by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, and The Sum of all Fears by Tom Clancy. NEST is mentioned in the first-person shooter video game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when a nuclear threat was suspected in the Middle East, as well as the stealth action game Metal Gear Solid. NEST is featured somewhat prominently in an episode of the television series Castle when a dirty bomb is found in New York City.

The need for a NEST team is raised in an episode of the television series The Blacklist when it is learned that a group of operatives the protagonists are seeking are in fact nuclear weapons placed somewhere within the U.S.

One of the main characters of Zankyō no Terror (Terror in Resonance) is a NEST researcher.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST)" (PDF). U.S. Department of Energy. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-09-23. Retrieved 2012-10-21.
  2. ^ "Defusing Iran's nuclear plans". Chicago Tribune via AccessMyLibrary. 2004-11-17. Retrieved 2012-10-21.
  3. ^ Peck, Chris (1981-02-08). "The day they said they'd nuke Spokane-Part 1" (scan). The Spokesman-Review. p. 17. Retrieved 2012-10-21.
  4. ^ Peck, Chris (1981-02-08). "The day they said they'd nuke Spokane-Part 2" (scan). The Spokesman-Review. p. 24. Retrieved 2012-10-21.
  5. ^ "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists". 2004-11-17. Retrieved 2012-10-21.
  6. ^ "Radio-too-Active: Medical radiation is causing unexpected problems", The Economist. 2004-12-02. Retrieved 2012-10-21

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]