WASHINGTON — Two years ago Darwin Morgan was at the movies with his wife when he got paged. The message: Come to the office right away.
A typical pseudo-crisis of budgets or personnel? Not hardly. Mr. Morgan is a member of NEST, the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Search Team. NEST leaders had just received a tip that a nuclear device was rumbling across South Dakota, hidden on a train.
"They deemed it a credible threat," says Morgan, a spokesman at DOE's Nevada Test Site.
A team with suitcase radiation detectors rushed to the site. It found nothing. The call was a hoax.
No need for the NEST 30mm cannon that can blast a bomb into pieces, or for the liquid nitrogen that can freeze detonator electronics, or the liquid cutter that can slice through titanium with a high-speed jet of water.
Just another day, another way for America's nukebusters to hone their deployment speed.
"We've got a mandate to bring everything to bear in six hours," says Morgan.
These are not the best of times for the 25-year-old NEST. The strange case of Los Alamos National Lab's traveling hard drives has, at the very least, called the group's handling of nuclear secrets into question.
At time of writing, investigators were reportedly focusing on the activities of three Los Alamos scientists and NEST members in their effort to discover where the digitized data disappeared to before being found behind a copier over the weekend.
The hard drives contain information on nuclear warheads that NEST needs if forced to dismantle them. Lax security or no, dismantlement is a core job for which NEST remains prepared, say experts.
"I don't think this calls into question their overall competence," says Robert Norris, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.
NEST is a sort of volunteer fire department for the atomic age. Virtually all of its approximately 1,000 members have other jobs within the US nuclear weapons establishment. They are nuclear physicists, engineers, experts in conventional explosives, chemists - the whole panoply of people needed to understand the awesome power of splitting atoms.
"These are the people who know the most about the weapons," says Mr. Norris.
The group was founded after a 1974 incident in which the government suspected, for a time, that a nuclear weapon had been hidden in Boston. Though the alarm was false, a stumbling response to the threat convinced US command authorities that they needed a better plan.
Thus NEST, which has now grown to the point where it accounts for about half of the Department of Energy's $70 million-plus nuclear emergency response budget.
NEST's first line of defense is a computer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California. It is loaded with thousands of pages of publicly available nuclear-weapons data from newspaper articles to spy novels.
NEST compares the text of extortionist phone calls and notes to this information, to see if presumed terrorists know what they are talking about or are simply mimicking something they saw on "JAG."
During its existence, NEST has dealt with threats that number in the low hundreds, say members. Of these, not many more than 30 have been found to be credible problems that need a response.
A response means deployment of a team of scientists - from Los Alamos or Livermore or the other national labs - grabbing rolling trunks of electronics and heading for planes waiting at nearby military bases.
In October 1994, NEST ran an exercise in New Orleans that shows what would theoretically happen next. Scientists in holiday garb crisscrossed the French Quarter, with radiation detectors hidden in briefcases and other luggage. Detector-carrying vans and aircraft helped in the search.
Of course, finding the nuclear device might be the easy part. Dismantling it without a catastrophic explosion would be the ultimate in bomb squad jobs.
X-rays, infrared sensors, and other devices would be used to try and get a picture of what the disablement team faces.
A 30mm cannon might just blow the device apart, if the team deems that safe. NEST also has a large tent which can be erected over a suspected bomb, and then pumped full of foam. Moon-suited technicians then blow up the high explosives that surround the fissile "pit" of nuclear weapons.
Reportedly, NEST has a liquid abrasive cutter which can be used to slice into suspected bombs. Why liquid? Sparks from a metallic saw or cutter could set off a nuclear detonation.
While most of NEST's call-outs are false alarms, the team has helped in some real-world radiological problems.
When a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite fell on northwest Canada in 1978, about 200 NEST members were deployed in a clean-up operation that took three months. Forty NEST personnel were sent to help in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident.
Every few years security personnel contact NEST members to make sure they want to continue their membership in America's version of a nuclear National Guard.
"I've got an eight-month-old at home," says Morgan. "But I'm still doing it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society