Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, American’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad, Jeffrey T. Richelson

Norton, 2009, 318 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-393-06515-2

Considering the anti-terrorist rhetoric of the past decade, it’s easy to be paranoid about America’s ability to counter nuclear terrorism.  After all, the Bush administration managed to convince peace-loving Americans to invade a nation without a viable WMD program in part because, in the oft-quoted words of then-NSA Condoleeza Rice “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”  In the years since 9/11, “dirty bombs” and “suitcase nukes” have entered the vernacular, along with a low-grade paranoia that any high-school student with a working knowledge of E=MC2 could be a sleeper agent.

Fortunately, there are watchdogs out there.  We don’t often hear about them because reassurances rarely sell newspapers, but elements of the US government do exist to react whenever there’s a nuclear threat against the nation.  In Defusing Armageddon, Jeffrey T. Richardson tackles the history and achievements of the Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), an organization of experts whose mandate it is to answer whenever someone rings the nuclear alarm.

The first surprise of the book is the context that made the creation of NEST so necessary.  After a preface that acknowledges an impressive bibliography of fictional work mentioning nuclear crisis scenario (from Thunderball to The Peacemaker, with mentions of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, Broken Arrow and Michael Connelly’s The Overlook), Defusing Armageddon tackles the real post-WW2 history of nuclear incidents in North America, and the result can be just as hair-raising as the fiction: The history of the organization so far includes missions of nuclear extortion threat evaluation, as well as radioactive material detection and containment.  If the White House receives a letter saying “answer our demands or say bye-bye Boston”, NEST’s number is at the top of the list of people to contact.

This happens more often than you’d think.  The book’s appendix provides a list of 103 nuclear extortion threats between 1970 and 1993, and the first few chapters detail quite a number of them.  From high-school students to disgruntled employees, NEST has helped identify and apprehend quite a few would-be nuclear terrorists.  Richelson’s descriptions of attempted extortion plots are alternately depressing and hilarious, their lack of consequences being no match by the thought that there would be so many attempts at it…  For those with an interest in techno-thrillers, this chunk of the book is a real highlight.

The next big moment of Defusing Armageddon comes in Chapter 3, which studies NEST’s response when a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite, Cosmos 954, re-entered the atmosphere and disintegrated over northern Canada in 1978.  The following search effort (“Operation Morning Light”) made sure that no significant nuclear debris presented any lingering threat, and the mechanics of the operation are fascinating in their own right.

After those first few chapters, Defusing Armageddon becomes less gripping as it studies the fallout of the fall of the Soviet empire (and unsecured depots of nuclear material), the new challenges of a post-9/11 security environment and the organisational changes that replaced NEST’s initial “Search” acronym to “Support”.  The narrative of fascinating details in the first third of the book gives way to a more conventional organizational biography, although occasional discussions of technological capabilities will reward those looking for background information.  Readers of Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s similarly-themed One Point Safe will find both confirmation and explanations about such events as the botched “Mirage Gold” training incident and the remarkably successful “Sapphire” nuclear evacuation operation.

Unlike the Cockbuns, however, Richelson is a scholar more than a storyteller, and the less glamorous sections of Defusing Armageddon illustrate that while the book is impeccably well-researched (over 50 of the book’s 300 pages are notes and sources), it’s not always as interesting to read as it should be: The writing style is dense, and Richelson’s access to many of NEST’s current and former employees hasn’t always translated in an accessible narrative on the page.

Nonetheless, Defusing Armageddon is a fascinating book.  Generally non-partisan and non-paranoid despite its catchy title, it’s a lucid explanation of real anti-terrorism efforts with a significant pedigree of effectiveness.  It’s engrossing reading for national security buffs, and it’s even sure appeal to those who think it’s been a long time since Tom Clancy’s last novel.

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