The Secret Bomb Squad

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When the Bush administration was warned after Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden might have some type of nuclear device, it knew where to turn for help: the Nuclear Emergency Support Team, a secretive unit within the Department of Energy. Last January the Administration quietly ordered NEST to launch periodic searches for a "dirty bomb" in Washington and other large U.S. cities. Administration officials tell Time that the NEST teams aren't dispatched to urban areas because of any specific threat received. Instead, almost every week the FBI randomly selects several cities for visits by NEST, which comprises some 300 scientists and technicians from Energy and nuclear-weapons laboratories trained in finding and dismantling terrorist nuclear devices.

A team of six or fewer NEST scientists covertly prowls areas, such as docks in a coastal town, that local authorities consider likeliest to have hidden contraband. Some NEST agents drive in unmarked vans packed with sophisticated gamma and neutron detectors that sniff for radiation emissions. Others travel on foot with the detectors concealed in briefcases, backpacks or even beer coolers. NEST was in Salt Lake last month deploying its equipment at the Olympics.

Explosive-ordnance-disposal experts with the Joint Special Operations Command are on call to fly in and assist the scientists in taking apart anything they find, but so far, NEST has turned up nothing in the searches. Administration officials admit that, just like putting sky marshals on airliners to foil potential hijackers, sending the NEST teams out is a shot in the dark. "But it's better than having them sitting at home doing nothing," says one.