Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), Nellis Air Force Base
Suppose Uncle Sam receives a report that a terrorist group has planted a nuclear device somewhere on American soil. If that happens, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team would be dispatched to locate and disarm it.
The Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) is an outgrowth of the Air Force’s experience in retrieving nuclear weapons from crashed bombers during the 1950s and 1960s. NEST was formed after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which greatly increased the possibility of a nuclear weapon falling into terrorist hands. Its funding was substantially increased after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. While that attack used conventional explosives, a nuclear weapon could have just as easily been concealed in the terrorists’ van parked in the Center’s garage. This realization was the impetus for NEST to greatly expand its capabilities, especially the ability to be rapidly deployed to search for hidden nuclear weapons.
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The NEST staff consists of volunteers from Nellis AFB and from the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Their areas of expertise mainly include nuclear device fabrication and dismantling, with other members having skills in radiation detection, conventional explosives and firearms, and field security.
Nellis was apparently selected as the NEST headquarters because of its long experience in matters related to nuclear weapons. For many years, Nellis is where devices tested at the Nevada Test Site underwent final assembly, and, as noted earlier, it is a storage facility for atomic weapons. Training missions are held at the NTS, including locating hidden nukes and their disassembly. The identities of all NEST members are classified.
What’s There: The NEST headquarters building is located in a remote part of Nellis AFB, away from public view. It is known that a military cargo plane is kept in a constant state of readiness at Nellis for their use; the plane includes radiation detectors, vans, disassembly tools, protective clothing, communications and computing gear, electrical
generators, and other items that would be needed to locate and disarm a nuclear device.
Secret Stuff: Remember the Los Alamos National Laboratory spy scare back in 1999, involving Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee? He was arrested late that year and charged with 59 felony counts of espionage, most involving downloading of data from the Los Alamos computers to his personal computer. Eventually, the government dropped the espionage charges and Lee pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling classified information. U.S. District Court James Parker, who presided over the case, said the government’s handing of the Lee case “embarrassed our entire nation” and admitted he was misled by the FBI and the Justice Department. Some of the information Lee was charged with stealing was data used by NEST, including design, assembly, and technical data for all the known nuclear weapons in the world, U.S. and foreign, and how to neutralize such devices.
Getting a Look Inside: Nellis AFB can arrange tours for groups through the public affairs office with at least 30 days advance notice; however, the NEST facilities are not part of any such tour.
Unusual Fact: In addition to training exercises at the NTS, NEST has also conducted simulations in various American cities in which members try to locate a hidden “nuke” (actually a mildly radioactive object that can be detected with their highly sensitive instruments). It has been reported that some NEST members were mugged during one such simulation when the object was hidden in what was described as “a depressed urban area.”
Getting There: Nellis AFB is located northeast of Las Vegas on Interstate 15 off the East Craig Road exit.