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".
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 a nuclear-weapon equipped airplane might crash and contaminate surrounding areas. In late 1974, President Gerald R. Ford was warned that the FBI received a communication from an extortionist wanting $200,000. It was claimed that a nuclear weapon had been placed somewhere in Boston, so a team of experts rushed in with scientists from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Unfortunately 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. As one of the researchers commented, "if they were counting on us to save the good folk of Boston... well it was bye-bye Boston."
The incident was found to be a hoax. However, the government's fumbling response made clear the need for an agency capable of effectively responding to such threats in the future. President Gerald R. Ford formed the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), which by 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" , later that year to provide technical support and assistance to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
According to the Bulletin of 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. 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 manmade and natural radiation since the '70s. At first, there were still some problems with this simple distinction—manmade 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.
Since its initial creation, however, the equipment has been improved multiple times and now, data can be processed accurately to be used to hone in on the activity of any single nuclear element desired.
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