Wednesday, 11 March 2009

“Defusing Armageddon”, by Jeffrey T. Richelson (W.W. Norton)


“Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad”

Most books about nuclear weapons range from those prophesying impending nuclear doom, or focus on the science and politics of creating and maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the US’s National Security Archive, has taken a different approach.

After a short introduction detailing nuclear catastrophe on American soil in the realms of film and popular fiction (which, in itself, was very interesting), the book starts in the mid-20th Century, when growing intelligence concerns over the possibility that the Soviet Union might smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States. Coupled with a number of other events of the time, Richelson looks at how this led to the creation of a special team of scientists and technicians tasked with keeping the country safe from any potential nuclear threat (domestically-situated or otherwise). The author explains and describes how the team was utilised to sniff out potential bomb threats during America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976, and also the 2008 Beijing Olympics; as well as other instances around the United States (e.g. Las Vegas and New Orleans), and also Canada.

This is a fascinating book, and an illuminating read. It covers every aspect of NEST: from their various deployments (as mentioned above) and the risks its members/employees take, to the exotic equipment they use (e.g. “automated tether-operated manipulator” and “high-speed liquid abrasive cutters”), and Richelson also looks at the impact of 9/11 on NEST, and also at some controversial programs it has recently undertaken (such as the covert surveillance of certain Muslim websites in the US).

Having taken a different approach to the world of nuclear weapons, Richelson has written an engaging history of America’s secret team of nuclear bomb specialists. Meticulously researched and written in a semi-journalistic style, the book is a rewarding and enjoyable read.

Defusing Armageddon is a refreshing alternative to other, more common-themed books on nuclear weapons and proliferation.

Also try: Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly (2008); Graham Allison, “The Nuclear Detectives” (Newsweek, March 14th 2009)

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