Nuclear Terror Response Teams Ready, Officials Say

WASHINGTON — Specialized U.S. teams trained to locate and disarm nuclear and radiological terror weapons are well equipped and organized for rapid action, two senior U.S. officials said at a congressional hearing yesterday (see GSN, Oct. 14).

The Energy Department’s Nuclear Emergency Search Teams (NEST) do not have trouble locating aircraft to fly them on their mission of rapid, anytime, worldwide deployment, according to retired Adm. Joseph Krol, associate administrator for emergency operations at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Nor does the federal government need a more streamlined decision-making process for deploying teams, according to John Lewis, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division.

The two appeared before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack Subcommittee.

AircraftThere are 29 Energy Department teams of scientists, engineers and support personnel located at eight “centers of excellence” at national laboratories around the country, according to Krol. Depending upon the scenario, teams might drive, take department aircraft or hitch rides on other government aircraft during an incident response.

A National Journal article noted in June that a 2003 Energy Department inspector general’s report said planes in the agency’s small fleet of aircraft are frequently unavailable because they are undergoing repairs or are carrying VIPs.

The article reported that NEST members sometimes needed to hitch rides on military planes or even commercial airlines to get to where they were needed.

Krol said the teams do not need their own fleet of aircraft for more consistent transportation. There has never been a time the teams could not get a ride, though sometimes, initially, they have been refused, he said.

“Persistence prevails. … It’s a manageable problem,” he said.

Chain of CommandLawmakers also asked whether the federal nuclear response command structure might encumber a rapid deployment against a suspected nuclear weapon threat.

While the search teams operate within the Energy Department, the Homeland Security Department in a crisis could bring the unit under its management. Meanwhile, the FBI, after determining the specific nature of the threat, would take command of the search and defuse operation, which also could also include personnel from other agencies and the military.

Representative James Langevin (D-R.I.) asked whether having Homeland Security situated between the search teams and the FBI in the chain of command potentially slows the response.

The FBI’s Lewis said a memorandum of understanding between Homeland Security and the FBI satisfactorily resolved questions about the command structure in favor of FBI operational authority.

Homeland Security’s role “doesn’t hamper me. I have what I need today to respond very quickly and take care of business,” he said.

Detection WeaknessKrol addressed a much-reported limit to the capabilities of the nuclear search teams and state and local entities: that the sensitivity of radiological detection devices — necessary for finding hidden sources — produces false alarms on bananas and other common sources of harmless radiation.

We “do get hits on naturally occurring sources of radiation. You just have to run those down.  There’s no way out of it. In some ways, we’re a slave to physics,” he said.

The multiagency Domestic Nuclear Detection Office housed at Homeland Security, which organizes development and deployment of national nuclear detection capabilities, also is working on solving such detection challenges, Krol said.

“We’re optimistic that in their effort to bring together architectures and do hard-core research into new possibilities for radiological detection, that they have an opportunity to make a difference,” he said.

The Energy Department spends about $10 million annually on detector research and development, he said.

“We are constantly working on coming up with more sensitive meters, more portable meters,” he said.

Krol said the “great equalizer in radiological search” is the ability of teams to send back information on a detected radiation source for analysis by experts at the national laboratories.

They can “get the absolute best analysis of what we provided,” he said.

The federal government relies primarily on intelligence information and detection by state and local authorities for leads on possible threats, Lewis said.

Krol said most major metropolitan areas are “adequately equipped” with detection devices.

A problem, though, is that many state and local personnel are not properly trained, probably because they have so many other issues they deal with, he said.

“They don’t spend a lot of time on radiation training,” Krol said.

October 28, 2005

WASHINGTON — Specialized U.S. teams trained to locate and disarm nuclear and radiological terror weapons are well equipped and organized for rapid action, two senior U.S. officials said at a congressional hearing yesterday (see GSN, Oct. 14).