Nuclear Terrorism and Countermeasures


House of Representatives, Committee on National Security, Military Research and Development Subcommittee, Washington, DC, Wednesday, October 1, 1997.

The subcommittee met, pursuant to call, at 2:35 p.m. in room 2118, Rayburn House Office Building, Hon. Curt Weldon (chairman of the subcommittee) presiding.

Ms. GORDON-HAGERTY. Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman. I am pleased to have this opportunity to appear before you today. My remarks today will focus on the Department of Energy’s operational emergency response assets and capabilities to counter acts of nuclear terrorism, both at home and abroad.

DOE possesses a unique and substantial capability to respond to acts of nuclear terrorism. The ability of the U.S. Government to maintain security within its borders as well as protect our interests throughout the world would be placed in serious jeopardy by a nuclear-capable terrorist or rogue nation. When the destructive potential of a nuclear device is taken into account, successful intervention and neutralization of this threat is critically important.

Over the past 50 years, the nuclear weapon research and development activities have provided the foundation for today’s emergency response program. The weapon designers, physicists, engineers, and equipment of Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories form the core of the emergency nuclear response program. An effective response to a nuclear terrorist incident cannot be undertaken without these stewards of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

The Department of Energy is responsible for providing the national technical expertise to resolve any major radiological or nuclear emergency within the United States and abroad. My office oversees a fully integrated program comprised of seven national assets providing a full range of specialized capabilities tailored to respond to either a nuclear accident or incident. Further, we also provide the preponderance of the technical response to the consequence management phase of an emergency.

Each asset possesses individual technical capabilities and equipment that contribute to a mutually supportive emergency response capability dealing specifically with accidents involving nuclear materials and nuclear weapons or terrorist incidents involving improvised nuclear devices or radiological disbursal devices. These seven include the accident response group, which provides the technical expertise in the resolution of a U.S. nuclear weapon accident, the aerial measuring system, state of the art remote sensing equipment and specially equipped aircraft, used to perform aerial surveys of a wide variety of nuclear emergencies, the atmospheric release advisory capability, a computer-based emergency preparedness and response predictive capability, which provides rapid prediction of transport, diffusion and deposition of radionuclides released into the atmosphere, the Federal radiological monitoring and assessment center, which coordinates the Federal response efforts when there is an actual or potential accident or incident that may involve a major release of radioactive materials within the United States or its territories, the radiological assistance program, or RAP, which is strategically located in eight regions throughout the United States.

RAP teams provide the initial first responder capability in response to requests for radiological assistance from State and local authorities. The radiation assistance center training site, a capability to respond to medical or health physics problems associated with radiological accidents on a local, national or global scale, and, finally, the nuclear emergency search team, or NEST, which is capable of locating and rendering safe a nuclear device.

I would like now to offer a few detailed remarks about our NEST Program. Made up of several components, NEST capabilities include search and identification of nuclear materials, diagnostics and assessment of suspected nuclear devices, and disablement and containment programs.

NEST personnel are on call 24 hours a day and can be quickly transported by military or commercial aircraft to any location worldwide. NEST was established in the 1970’s to respond to nuclear extortion incidents in support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because it was believed that the extortionists would allow time for negotiations, the extortion scenario allowed for planning and operations to be conducted over a period of several days, and NEST developed procedures that were slow and very thorough.

The idea that a terrorist would gain possession of a nuclear device and detonate it without warning was not deemed creditable at that time.

Mr. Chairman, times have changed. We recognize that in 1992, that changes were needed in the NEST Program to counter the emerging threat of nuclear terrorism, and we began working with our partners in the Department of Defense to develop a capability to seize, recover, render safe or render useless a terrorist nuclear device. While I cannot discuss this capability in an unclassified forum, I can tell you that we have exercised this capability extensively with the Departments of Defense and State over the past 5 years and more recently we have begun exercising as well with the FBI.

We conduct realistic exercises with an eye toward uncovering deficiencies and limitations. The results of these exercises point the way toward capability improvements through changes in operational procedures or through the development of new technologies.

Unfortunately, due to funding shortfalls, we have shortchanged our fast track technology development programs in order to maintain peak operational readiness.

It is my intention, however, to continue along this path of a more rigorous training and readiness program in the future to ensure that this one-of-a-kind asset truly is ready when the national security of the United States is at risk.

Again, I thank the subcommittee for the opportunity to testify before you today, and speaking on behalf of the combating terrorism community, we all appreciate the interest that you have taken in this very important national security matter. I would be pleased to answer any questions you have today.

OODA Analyst

OODA Analyst

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