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DEFUSING ARMAGEDDON: Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad. Jeffrey T. Richelson. xvi + 318 pp. W. W. Norton, 2009. $27.95.

The large-area imagerClick to Enlarge ImageWhat would the U.S. government do if it were informed that terrorists had planted nuclear explosives in one or more major U.S. cities? This question may sound hypothetical, but it is not. As Jeffrey T. Richelson reports in Defusing Armageddon, officials were confronted with such warnings more than 100 times between 1970 and 1993, and many times since. Fortunately, all were hoaxes.

In about 10 percent of the cases, this was not obvious, however, and the government—usually the FBI—called on the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) to search for and defuse a possible nuclear explosive. NEST, formed in the mid-1970s, is a group of technical experts (mostly from Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories) who have equipment to detect radiation from a nuclear weapon or radioactive materials that might be used to make a “dirty bomb.” The team also includes experts in the design of nuclear weapons, who can advise on how to defuse an explosive device.

Because of hoaxes, NEST is called into action surprisingly often. It also is deployed on exercises in which the team is asked to detect the presence of a mock nuclear device and help disassemble it. And occasionally NEST is used to search for radioactive material that has gone astray. Richelson devotes a chapter to the story of NEST’s 1978 mission to help Canada find the radioactive debris from a Russian nuclear-reactor-powered satellite that had burned up in the atmosphere over Canada’s Northwest Territory.

How well would NEST do if it were faced with a real terrorist device? The team’s radiation-detection instrumentation and training are improving, but NEST’s record is mixed. Apparently the only time it has been confronted with a real (fortunately nonnuclear) bomb was in 1980, when a “sophisticated improvised explosive device” was placed in Harvey’s Resort Hotel in Stateline, Nevada, by a would-be blackmailer. Richelson reports that a NEST representative from Livermore, who was on the scene, approved a proposal by someone at the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal facility in Maryland to decapitate the bomb (cutting its trigger wires) by shooting a shaped charge through it. The device was booby-trapped, however, and the shaped charge set it off, destroying two stories of the building. There were no injuries, fortunately; the hotel had been evacuated, and the shaped charge was remotely triggered.

After more than 30 years with no real nuclear explosives or dirty bombs, one might question whether the threat of nuclear terrorism has been exaggerated. However, as Richelson reports, Al Qaeda and some other groups have shown great interest in acquiring the makings of such devices. And the world still contains well over 10,000 nuclear weapons and enough military and civilian material to make tens of thousands more.

Highly enriched uranium, the most suitable material for a terrorist nuclear explosive, is notoriously difficult to detect from any distance because it is only weakly radioactive and emits mostly low-energy gamma rays, which are easily shielded. Richelson recounts that Robert Oppenheimer was asked in 1946 by a senator, “What instrument would you use to detect an atomic bomb hidden somewhere in a city?” He responded, “A screwdriver,” meaning that it would be necessary to open every crate or suitcase big enough to hold a bomb. It is not clear that the answer would be much different today, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and the purchase of many radiation detectors and high-energy x-ray machines to screen containers coming into the United States.

Some of the materials that could be used to make nuclear explosives or dirty bombs can be found in unstable places such as Pakistan, and some are not adequately secured. A number of thefts have been reported in Russia. All were of quantities insufficient to make a weapon, but the Russian government reports only thefts that were intercepted. And materials in Russia are not the only causes of concern. As Richelson notes, in 2007 an attack penetrated the site where South Africa keeps enough highly enriched uranium for at least a few nuclear bombs—legacy material from that country’s former nuclear-weapons program, which is now used to produce medical radioisotopes. In force-on-force exercises in the United States, “red teams” made up of Department of Defense special-forces personnel too often succeed in stealing target material from supposedly secure U.S. nuclear facilities.

Still, it is much easier to secure such material in the first place than to recover it after it has been stolen. The first line of defense against nuclear terrorism must therefore be to upgrade security for nuclear weapons and materials, and the second is to reduce the number of locations where they can be found. There are a number of efforts under way to do this in the United States. There are also programs in Russia, Pakistan and elsewhere, most of which are U.S.-funded.

Almost $1 billion per year is being spent to help foreign governments mount such programs. Given the potential consequences of nuclear terrorism, however, money should not be stinted when it can be spent effectively. Richelson reports that in 2006 the RAND Corporation estimated that the direct costs of a Hiroshima-scale explosion in the Port of Long Beach would be about $1 trillion. The indirect costs to the global economy and to civil liberties worldwide can scarcely be imagined.

Unfortunately, Defusing Armageddon is poorly organized and contains much extraneous detail that makes it difficult to see the forest for the trees. Also, some readers will, like me, be disappointed that it does not provide much insight into the technical aspects of the detection problem.

Richelson is a political scientist, a Senior Fellow with the National Security Archive and the author of a number of books on U.S. national intelligence collection. He reports that for this book he interviewed a large number of NEST veterans and “other knowledgeable individuals.” He should have asked one of them to check his manuscript for technical errors; I spotted several. For example, contrary to what Richelson says on page 146, highly enriched uranium does not have potential use as a dirty bomb, because its radioactivity is very low. And scintillation detectors don’t detect disturbances in the atmosphere, as he implies they do on page 204; they are fluorescent materials that detect the passage of ionizing radiation.

Also, on page 233 Richelson appears to accept uncritically the self-serving claim from nuclear-weapons experts that Congress, by refusing to fund a proposal to build a whole new arsenal of Reliable Replacement Warheads, undermined the maintenance of the nuclear-weapons expertise needed by the NEST program. There are other ways to maintain the necessary expertise that are less costly and would do less damage to the effort to convince the world that the United States is serious about nuclear disarmament.

Despite these shortcomings, if you want to learn more about NEST, this book is the place to start.

Frank von Hippel is a professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and cochair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials. During 1993 and 1994, he was Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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