For related documentation on the U.S. government's Nuclear Emergency Search Team (later renamed Support Team) see two other National Security Archive electronic briefing books edited by Jeffrey Richelson:

The Nuclear Emergency Search Team, 1974-1996

U.S. Nuclear Detection and Counterterrorism, 1998-2009

as well as Richelson's book, Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America's Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009)

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Mighty Derringer

U.S. Nuclear Terrorism Exercise Leaves Indianapolis in "Ruins"

Fictional Scenario Results in Nuclear Destruction of Large Part of City

1980s Secret Exercise Judged Positively But Underscores Range of Potential Problems - Bomb Detection, Interagency Coordination, Containment of Contamination, General "Confusion"

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 380

Posted - May 29, 2012

For more information contact:
Jeffrey T. Richelson
William Burr -
202/994-7000 or

Washington, D.C., May 29, 2012 - A secret exercise in 1986 by a U.S. government counter-terrorist unit uncovered a host of potential problems associated with disrupting a nuclear terrorist plot in the United States. Declassified documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and posted today by the National Security Archive offer the first detailed public look at the inner workings of the agencies, military units and other U.S. entities responsible for protecting the country from a terrorist nuclear attack.

Today's posting consists of over 60 documents related to MIGHTY DERRINGER, an exercise that focused on Indianapolis in December 1986. The materials provide background on the creation, in 1974-1975, of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), a group assigned to respond to plausible threats of nuclear terrorism or extortion. Today, NEST (now the Nuclear Emergency Support Team) conducts exercises to assess its capability to respond to the possible presence of a terrorist device and test the ability of NEST and critical cooperating organizations (including military units)to work together.

While the MIGHTY DERRINGER exercise and resulting documents are over two decades old, the institutions participating in the exercise retain their roles today, and the issues confronting them in 1986 are similar to the ones that they would face in responding to a nuclear threat in 2012 (and beyond).

This posting is notable for being the first publication of documents that provide in-depth exposure into all aspects of such an exercise - including the state-of-play at key points and the array of issues involved in disabling terrorist devices. Of particular interest are references to the participation of the Joint Special Operations Command and Delta Force - mirroring the role they would have in a real-world incident. In addition, after-action reports reveal the assorted problems that can arise in coordinating the response to a nuclear terrorist threat among a large number of organizations.

* * * *


In late January and early February 2012, members of the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) patrolled Lucas Oil Stadium as well as surrounding areas of Indianapolis as a precautionary measure in advance of Super Bowl XLVI. An initial survey to gather information on background levels of radiation was followed by an actual search for signatures associated with either a nuclear explosive device or a radiation dispersal device (a 'dirty bomb').1 Fortunately, none was found.

Over twenty-five years earlier, for a few days in early December 1986, NEST personnel also patrolled Indianapolis, also in search of a nuclear device. That search was triggered by an intelligence report that suggested that an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) might have been smuggled into the city by terrorists. With the assistance of the Delta Force, U.S. personnel were able to recover and disable the device in a fictitious neighboring country; unfortunately the Indianapolis device exploded and 20 square blocks in downtown Indianapolis were completely destroyed.

As it happens, the terrorist group, the intelligence report, and the detonation were fictional - elements of a NEST exercise designated MIGHTY DERRINGER, one of a number of tests designed to anticipate and prevent the potential real-world catastrophe of a terrorist nuclear strike in a major American city. Documents published today by the National Security Archive provide newly declassified details on how the MIGHTY DERRINGER exercise unfolded and how the participants later evaluated it.

This is the most extensive set of declassified documents on any nuclear counterterrorism exercise, covering every phase of the response, from concept to critiques, and it offers valuable insights into a world that is usually hidden from public scrutiny. Among the disclosures:

§ The role of the top secret Joint Special Operations Command's Delta Force in carrying out the assault on the terrorist cell in the fictional country of Montrev.

§ Descriptions of the different types of disablement techniques U.S. forces utilize - emergency destruct, standard destruction, and hard entry.

§ Assessments of the coordination problems and different perspectives of agencies that would be involved in a real-world response.

The instruction to establish NEST, known until 2002 as the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, took the form of a November 18, 1974 memo from Maj. Gen. Ernest Graves, the Atomic Energy Commission's assistant general manager for military application, to Mahlon Gates, the manager of the commission's Nevada Operations Office. (Document 1). Gates was "directed and authorized" to assume responsibility for the planning and execution of field operations employing AEC radiation detection systems for the "search and identification of lost or stolen nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials, bomb threats, and radiation dispersal threats."

Personnel for NEST would come from AEC's nuclear weapons laboratories - Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos - as well as key AEC contractors. Almost all those individuals would continue in their regular positions full-time and become part of a NEST effort when required.

What inspired Graves' memo was an incident that had taken place in May of that year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation received a letter demanding $200,000. Failure to comply would result in the detonation of a nuclear bomb somewhere in Boston. Personnel and equipment were quickly assembled and transported to Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. But before the team could make it to the threatened city, the crisis receded when no-one came to pick up the $200,000 in phony bills left at the designated site. 2

But the incident and the difficulties involved in responding to the threat convinced senior leaders that there was a need for a dedicated capability to deal with any attempt at nuclear extortion or nuclear terrorism. From its inception, NEST devoted considerable time and effort to conducting exercises designed to allow the team to test its readiness, procedures, and equipment in a variety of scenarios. In addition, since confronting a nuclear threat would involve not only NEST but a multitude of organizations, exercises provided an opportunity to identify potential problems in interagency cooperation.

MIGHTY DERRINGER was a particularly notable exercise in exploring the organizational, governmental, and technical problems that might arise in responding to a nuclear terrorist threat. While the existence of MIGHTY DERRINGER has been reported previously, the documents obtained by the National Security Archive and posted in this briefing book provide far more detail than previously available on the scenario, results, and after-action assessments of the assorted organizations involved. Since NEST and these other government entities are still critical components of America's counter-terrorist capability, these records are valuable for the insight they offer into how a current-day nuclear detection operation would unfold and particularly what kinds of problems might be encountered.3

The exercise took place in two locations - Camp Atterbury, Indiana, near Indianapolis, and Area A-25 of the Energy Department's Nevada Test Site - which corresponded to the two locations involved in the exercise scenario. One of the those locations was Indianapolis while the other was the country of 'Montrev' - a rather transparent fictional version of Mexico (since Montrev shared a border with the United States, its capital city was 'Montrev City', and its primary security agency was the Directorate for Federal Security - the same as Mexico's).

Montrev was the initial focus of the exercise, with a terrorist group commanded by "Gooch" threatening to detonate an improvised nuclear device (IND) near the country's Bullatcha oil field. According to the scenario, terrorists had stolen the devices from a new nuclear weapons state. Eventually, the participants discovered that that there was a second nuclear device and it appeared that it was being infiltrated into the United States, possibly with Pittsburgh as a target - although it was subsequently determined that the target was Indianapolis. While U.S. forces (with Delta Force assistance) were able to recover and disable the device in Montrev, Indianapolis experienced a 1 kiloton nuclear detonation that resulted in "total devastation over a 20 square block area." (Document 38) The scenario had originally posited a successful disarming, but the exercise controllers decided to introduce a new element.

The scenario allowed for all aspects of a possible response to a nuclear terrorist/extortionist threat to be practiced - from initial assessment of the threat to the management of the "consequences" of a detonation. The documents posted cover, with varying detail, the core aspects of a response - intelligence collection, technical and behavioral assessments, search, access/defeat of terrorist forces, recovery of a device, diagnostics, hazards and effects estimation, disablement and damage limitation, safe transportation of the device, and consequence management of a detonation. In addition, they also concern a variety of important aspects of a response - including security, command and control, communications, logistics, radiological measurement and containment, weather forecasting, public information, and interaction with local officials.

The documents also identify the large number of organizations involved in the exercise. There is NEST and the organizations that contributed members or capabilities - including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and contractor EG&G. Additional organizations whose participation is evident include the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joint Special Operations Command, Special Forces Operation Detachment - Delta (Delta Force), several military explosive ordnance disposal units (from the Army and Navy), the Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Beyond detailing participants and describing different aspects of the exercise and static plans, some of the documents (the 'Sitreps'- Document 19, Document 23, Document 32) provide a more dynamic view of the state of play at various points in the exercise. In addition, the post-exercise critiques provide different individual and institutional perspectives as to either the realism of the exercise or what the exercise revealed about strengths and weaknesses of the then current U.S. ability to respond to a nuclear terrorist threat.

Thus, Vic Berkinklau, an engineer with the Atomic Energy Commission, in addition to describing MIGHTY DERRINGER as an "Excellent, well managed exercise," had an additional eight observations which concerned subjects such as uncertainty as to the number of NEST personnel needed in Montrev, the relationship between NEST and the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team, and the need for more detailed analysis of the consequences of a nuclear detonation in a populated area (Document 43). L.J. Wolfson of the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technical Center contributed an eight-page single-spaced analysis concerning a variety of topics, including the nuclear device, assessment and intelligence, command and control and disablement. He observed (Document 47) that "there is too great a prevalence to believe what might, and probably is, very inconclusive intelligence information" and that "the entire operation was slowed and overburdened by the number of personnel involved."

Commenting on the terrorism phase of the exercise (Document 50), William Chambers, NEST member and site controller for the Indianapolis component of the exercise, wrote that liaison between the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, NEST, and EOD personnel was "excellent" but that "the joint procedures for withdrawing the HRT and survivors, securing the perimeter, and clearing access to the device need clarification." An unattributed comment (Document 66) suggested that the Delta Force players did not appreciate the "gravity of dealing with a nuclear device."

In the subsequent twenty-five years, NEST and other organizations concerned with nuclear terrorism have conducted a significant number of exercises - particularly following the attacks of September 11, 2001.4 However, because of its scale and scope MIGHTY DERRINGER remains one of the more notable nuclear counterterrorism exercises.

The Energy Department is keeping secret significant aspects of MIGHTY DERRINGER, but more may be learned about the exercise and the State Department's role in it from the response to a pending request. Moreover, files on MIGHTY DERRINGER at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library will eventually be declassified and shed light on the National Security Council's role.

(Note: A list of abbreviations used in the documents appears below.)



Document 1: Ernest Graves, Assistant General Manager for Military Application, Atomic Energy Commission, to M.E. Gates, Nevada Operations, "Responsibility for Search and Detection Operations," November 18, 1974. Secret.

Source: Department of Energy FOIA Release

With this memo General Graves assigned Gates and the AEC's Nevada Operations Office responsibility for search and detection operations with respect to lost and stolen nuclear weapons and special nuclear material as well as responding to nuclear bomb and radiation dispersal threats. The memo became the basis for the creation of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST).

Document 2: Director of Central Intelligence, IIM 76-002, The Likelihood of the Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons by Terrorist Groups for Use Against the United States, January 8, 1976. Secret.

Source: CIA FOIA Release.

An interagency group of intelligence analysts explored the constraints on the exploitation of nuclear explosives, attitudes and behavior toward the United States, means of acquiring nuclear explosives, the ways in which nuclear devices might be used against the United States, and the capabilities of existing terrorist groups. While the authors considered it unlikely that the U.S. would be the target of a nuclear terrorist attack "in the next year or two," they also noted that, in the longer term, "we would expect a corresponding erosion of the constraints against terrorist use of nuclear explosives."

Document 3: Energy Research and Development Administration, "Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST)," n.d. (but 1977). Unclassified.

Source: Energy Research and Development Administration

NEST began its existence as an unacknowledged government organization, but in 1977 it was concluded that NEST would have to interact with local law enforcement and political authorities in dealing with nuclear threats, and thus its existence would need to be acknowledged. This fact sheet, distributed to the press by ERDA, was the means by which NEST's existence was quietly announced.

Document 4: E.J. Dowdy, C.N. Henry, R.D. Hastings, S.W. France, LA-7108, Nuclear Detector Suitcase for the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, February 1978. Unclassified.

Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory

This technical paper describes one piece of equipment designed specifically for NEST personnel - a portable Neutron Detection system that could be carried in any vehicle. The paper describes the detectors, the electronics, and the operations.

Document 5: Director of Central Intelligence, NIE 6-86, The Likelihood of Nuclear Acts by Terrorist Groups, April 1986, Secret, excised copy

Source: Mandatory Review Request; release by Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

This estimate examined several incentives and constraints with regard to nuclear terrorism - including the availability of nuclear information, material, and trained personnel; changing levels of protection for nuclear weapons and other sources of nuclear/radioactive material; and terrorist capabilities and motivations (including possible state support to nuclear terrorism). The authors concluded that there was only a "low to very low" probability of nuclear terrorism that involved detonation of an improvised nuclear device or nuclear weapon - or the dispersal of radioactive material in a way that would threaten mass casualties or produce widespread contamination.


Document 6: William Hoover, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Defense Programs, to DCI William Casey, 23 September 1985, with CIA routing memos, Confidential

Source: CREST, National Archives II

A senior Energy Department official informed Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey of the Department's conclusion on the need for a large-scale nuclear exercise in the early 1987 fiscal year and requested the CIA's participation.

Document 7: Robert B. Oakley, State Department Counter-Terrrorism Center, to Executive Secretary Nicholas Platt, MIGHTY DERRINGER Exercise Planning," 4 April 1986, with memorandum to Vice Admiral John Poindexter attached, Confidential

Source: State Department FOIA release

This memorandum, from the head of the State Department's Counter-Terrorism Center, along with that attached memo to the president's national security adviser, described the level of State Department participation in MIGHTY DERRINGER.

Document 8: Peter Borg, State Department Counter-Terrorism Center, to Richard Kennedy et al., "Exercise MIGHTY DERRINGER," 6 October 1986, Secret

Source: State Department FOIA release

A number of State Department officials were recipients of this secret memo, which informed them of the nature of MIGHTY DERRINGER, when it would take place, some requirements for the exercise to be realistic, and the State Department's participation.

The Exercise

Document 9: Don McMaster, Behavioral Assessment Report/PLC, n.d. [circa 2 December 1986], Incomplete copy, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This behavioral assessment mirrors the earliest phases of responding to an actual threat, especially trying to assess its credibility. It discusses the reliability of a source, motivations of other key figures in the terrorist group, and concludes that a credible threat exists to both the United States and 'Montrev.'

Document 10: F.W. Jessen, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, "Summary Assessment," 2 December 1986, Secret, Incomplete copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This assessment, conducted at Lawrence Livermore, where much of the credibility assessment effort has been located, reports that the available information suggests that the terrorist group possesses two improvised nuclear devices but that LLNL and Los Alamos National Laboratory disagree over the technical credibility of the threat.

Document 11: "Aggregate Assessment - - One Hour - - Of Threat Message and Sketch,"

n.d., Secret, Page 1 only

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The title of this memo indicates that a sketch of a device was included with the threat message. Technical experts had already begun to draw conclusions about the device in Montrev as well as the implications for finding a second device in the United States.

Document 12: Thomas R. Clark, Manager, Nevada Operations Office, Department of Energy, "NEST Alert Status," 3 December 1986, Confidential, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This message, from a Department of Energy manager, informs NEST participants at key laboratories and contractors that NEST is on "alert." The Department of State has received a threat and the Department of Energy has been asked to evaluate it. Other actions have been taken.

Document 13: "Security Plan for NEST Retrograde Operation, December 1986," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The plan described in this document notes the classification levels and types of information involved in the exercise as well as measures for the protection of cryptological matter and classified documents.

Document 14: Peter Mygatt, Exercise Mighty Derringer, "Chronological Media Play, 'Site City,' Beginning 12/7/86," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The MIGHTY DERRINGER scenario writers assumed that if it was a real-world event, part of it would be visible and covered extensively by the media. This document summarizes reports of fictional news services and television stations as well as interaction between the media and FBI and Department of Energy.

Document 15: NEST On-Scene Commander, Subject: Event Mighty Derringer Sitrep No. 1 OCONUS, Prepared at 00:15 PST on 12/06/86, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The first Situation Report (Sitrep) of the part of the exercise that takes place in Montrev summarizes the current situation (including the number of personnel in country) as well as
the status of a variety of subjects - including command and control, intelligence, disablement, and weather.

Document 16: W. Rogers, NEST Paramedic Coordinator, to V. Withirill, N.T.S.O, "MIGHTY DERRINGER, MEDICAL EMERGECY RESPONSE," 6 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This memo reports that MIGHTY DERRINGER was being conducted in area A-25 of the Nevada Test Site and would involve approximately 450 people. It focuses on "areas of responsibility … and those assets available" in the event of an actual medical emergency.

Document 17: "NEST Evacuation Plan," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This plan addresses the evacuation of NEST personnel and equipment from Montrev City in the event of a nuclear detonation at the nearby Bullatcha Refinery No. 5. It focuses on execution, logistics, and command and control.

Document 18: NEST On-Scene Coordinator/Exercise Mighty Derringer, to Director, Emergency Management Team, DOE-EDC, Washington, D.C., Event Mighty Derringer Sitrep No. 2, Prepared at 1100 PST 6 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This report updates the Sitrep that had been prepared just after midnight on December 6 and reports on the significant developments that had occurred during the day. It covers thirteen different topics, and provides significant details of the terrorist site in Montrev, a summary of the behavioral assessment based on communications intelligence, and an assessment of the device. It notes that a "second nuclear device may be enroute [to] CONUS" and there is no confidence that the device is one-point safe, that is, the risk of an accidental nuclear detonation had to be taken into account (to be one-point safe there must be less than 1 in one million probability of producing a nuclear yield exceeding the equivalent of 4 pounds of TNT when the high explosive inside the weapon is detonated at any single point).

Document 19: NEST On-Scene Coordinator /Exercise Mighty Derringer, to Director, Emergency Management Team, DOE-EDC, Washington, D.C., Subject: Event Mighty Derringer Sitrep No. 3, Prepared at 00:10, on 12/07/86, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This Sitrep prepared an about one hour after Sitrep No. 2, notes that "prestaging of equipment for access has been completed."

Document 20: Assessment/McMaster, to Standard Distribution, "IRT Intelligence Summary 061200-062400," 7 December 1986 02:30, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This assessment reports on attempts to determine the presence of a nuclear device at the terrorist site, the movements of the terrorist group's leader, the weapons and equipment possessed by the group, and a conclusion regarding the capability of Montrev's armed forces to secure the terrorist site.

Document 21: Assessment/McMaster, to Standard Distribution, "Status Montrev Forces," 7 December 1986 05:30, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The status of Montrev's forces is reported in this memo, which is based on information received from the Defense Intelligence Agency. It discusses their location, vehicle lift capability, and maintenance issues.

Document 22: CN1 to All, "Mighty Derringer," 7 December 1986 8:44, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This memo conveys a report from the IWS news service on events in Montrev.

Document 23: NEST On-Scene Coordinator, Subject: Event Mighty Derringer, Sitrep No. 4, OCONUS, Prepared at 09:40 on 12/07/86, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This Sitrep indicates a successful assault by forces of the Joint Special Operations Command, resulting in their control of both the north and south sites that had been under terrorist control. It reports on the status of the nuclear device and the initial implementation of the emergency disablement plan.

Document 24: Summary Assessment to Standard Distribution, "Summary Assessment," 7 December 1986 10:30, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The technical assessment has been entirely redacted from this document, but the operational and behavioral assessments have been released in their entirety. They note that "The adversary has set up the Montrev situation in such a way that if and when he surfaces in CONUS and makes an explicit threat and demand, he must be taken seriously."

Document 25a: CN1 to All, "Mighty Derringer," 7 December 1986 12:28, Secret

Document 25b: CN1 to All, "Mighty Derringer," 7 December 1986 13:07, Secret

Document 25c: CN1 to All, "Mighty Derringer," 7 December 1986 15:48, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

These bulletins convey various media reports of developments in Montrev, including the presence of NEST personnel.

Document 26: Assessment/F. Kloverstrom to Standard Distribution, "Results of examination of containers found in south building," 7 December 1986 18:10, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This memo reports on the discovery, after the assault, of two containers, which appear to contain radioactive material.

Document 27: Jim Boyer, "Suggested Procedure for Joint DOE/Montrev News Releases," 7 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Among the recommendations in this short memo are obtaining input from the Montrev Ministry of Information "to get an idea of what El Presidente will approve," developing a cover for the NEST operation, but preparing to admit NEST participation during the last phase of the operation.

Document 28: "Time Line/Event/Decision Sequence," 8 December 1986 19:00, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This document focuses on the essential steps in disabling the nuclear device seized in Montrev and limiting damage. Thus, it addresses access, diagnostics, disablement, damage limitation, and hazards and effects.

Document 29: "Damage Limitation Containment Implementation,"8 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This eight-page memo has been almost completely redacted but the opening paragraph notes the location of the Montrev device and that its location presents a "formidable problem" but that all participants reached a common conclusion for the solution.

Document 30: "Hazards and Effects Analysis Prior to Montrev Disablement," n.d. [8 December 1986?], Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This three-paragraph memo notes that hazard predictions (involving fallout dose and exposure rates) considered a variety of possible yields, wind projections, and the vulnerability of "the small village of Taco Caliente."

Document 31: A/I [Assessment & Intelligence] Behavioral, "Booby Traps/Tamper Proof," n.d. [8 December 1986?], Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This assessment focuses on the likelihood that the terrorist group and its leader would have installed booby traps to prevent tampering with the nuclear device seized in Montrev. It notes the implications of the extensive anti-personnel attack defenses around the area.

Document 32: James K. Magruder, On-Scene Commander, to Director, Emergency Management Team, DOE-EOC, Washington, D.C, Event Mighty Derringer Sitrep No. 7, 8 December 1986 23:00, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This Sitrep notes presumed deadlines for nuclear device detonation and a proposed disablement schedule, the number of personnel on site, an extensive report on current intelligence, and that an "emergency destruct plan has been prepared."

Document 33: Assessment & Intelligence/F. Jessen to Standard Distribution, "A&I Summary/8 December 2130," 8 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This assessment notes the credibility of a threat message claiming the existence of a second nuclear device based on experimental measurements of the device seized in Montrev. The memo's contents suggest a U.S. target for the second device.

Document 34: J.A. Morgan, Disablement Team Leader, to On-Scene Commander, "Disablement Plan," 9 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The memo includes a computer sketch of the terrorist nuclear device and the disablement method, as well as the reentry and evacuation plans - all of which have been redacted.

Document 35: "Exercise Mighty Derringer Post-Event Plan to Safe and Remove the Device," circa 9 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This heavily-redacted memo covers four topics - the situation, mission, execution, and administration and logistics. The released portion notes that disablement action had been completed and that an intact physics package had been recovered.

Document 36: "NEST Demobilization Plan," 10 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This memo marks plans for the ending the exercise - specifying the responsibilities of the individual organizations, procedures for transportation to the airport and the loading of aircraft, and command and control.

Document 37: Assessment/M. Miron, to Standard Distribution, "Resemblance of Montrev Device to Tahoe Bomb," 9 December 1986 20:35, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

In 1980, a sophisticated improvised (non-nuclear) explosive device placed at Harvey's Wagon Wheel Casino did substantial damage when disablement efforts failed. The memo suggests that publicly available information about the device may have been employed to construct the Montrev device.

Document 38: Cal Wood, Livermore National Laboratory, to Bob Nelson, Controller Team Leader, "Preliminary Evaluation of Players' Device Estimate," 10 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This heavily redacted memo notes that "the diagnostic techniques used by the team produced a rather good estimate of both the materials present and their configuration."

Document 39: Director FEMA to National Security Council, "Situation Report on MONTREV/Indianapolis Terrorist Situation," 11 December 1986 17:00 EST, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The FEMA director begins with the observation that "At 0700, 11 December 1986, a nuclear detonation occurred in the City of Indianapolis" devastating 20 square blocks. He does not describe the type of damage produced, for example, whether the detonation led to any fires, or the extent to which it caused local fallout hazards. The FEMA director then describes the consequence management phase of the exercise, including involvement of state and federal authorities and agencies.


Document 40: Carl Henry, Los Alamos National Laboratory, "Mighty Derringer Report," 2 February 1987, enclosing comments by Ray D. Duncan, n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Some weeks after the exercise, Los Alamos official Carl Henry sent a large package of commentary on MIGHTY DERRINGER, which is presented below, piece by piece, except for the critique by Ray D. Duncan,which is attached to the Henry memorandum. Duncan, a manager at the Nevada Test Site, produced an extensive review which raised a number of issues, including the "unusual challenges" MIGHTY DERRINGER raised for NEST if it was ever deployed to a foreign country for a "covert operation." Perhaps some incident during the exercise led him to the recommendation for educational training for Delta Force and the Joint Special Operations Command so that their members "understand the potential consequences of moving or unintentionally shooting an IND [improvised nuclear device]."

Document 41: Untitled, unattributed document, Secret, incomplete

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This critique gives some detail on how the NEST group entered Montrev during the crisis. The State Department had created an approved access list and a simulated Montrev consulate processed the players when they entered the country. When players realized that they had forgotten some equipment, they were easily able to retrieve it as it was only 65 miles away. The commentator noted that in a "real world situation, the NEST contingent could be thousands of miles away from necessary equipment or supplies."

Document 42: Eric Schuld to Bob Nelson, "Comments on Mighty Derringer - OCONUS Issues," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Schuld listed issues brought up by the "Outside Continental United States" exercise. For example, the JSOC solved its problem through a "quick assault" that created problems for other organizations in the exercise.

Document 43: Vic Berniklau to Bob Nelson, "Issues/Major Observations/Lessons Learned," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Like many of the commentators, Berniklau saw the exercise as "excellent" and "well managed," but he raised problems that others also brought up, such as fragmentation of information and "confusion."

Document 44: T.T. Scolman, Comments, n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Scolman, whose role was "Commander for Science," also saw an information management problem and pointed to other concerns, such as lack of support staff.

Document 45: Richard F. Smale, HSE, to Carl Henry/Bill Chambers, "First Impressions: Mighty Derringer: Consequence Phase," n.d., Classification unknown

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The "consequence phase" referred to the aftermath of the nuclear detonation in Indianapolis. Smale saw "great things" in the exercise, such as its technical organization, but he pointed to concerns such as the failure to present information that would be accessible to a non-technical audience and the lack of time to "develop good fallout plots."

Document 46: L J. O'Neill, "Exercise Impressions," 9 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

O'Neill was impressed by the participation of "foreign speaking actors" which helped the participants to enter "wholeheartedly into the play."

Document 47: L.J. Wolfson to R. Nelson, "Exercise Mighty Derringer," 10 December 1986, Classificaion unknown, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Like O'Neill, Wolfson pointed to the "good actor play," especially by the actor who had the role of Montrev's "El General." Nevertheless, he argued that "too many people" slowed down the operation.

Document 48: William Nelson, Mighty Derringer Washington Controller, to Captain Ronald St. Martin, National Security Council, "Mighty Derringer Meeting at FBI Headquarters, 12 December 1986, Classification unknown

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The discussion at FBI headquarters on organizational issues produced a consensus on the need for a White House-designated "leader," possibly at the cabinet level, responsible for managing post-nuclear disaster recovery activities.

Document 49: Kathy S. Gant, Emergency Technology Program, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to William Chambers, Los Alamos National Laboratory, 17 December 1986, enclosing "Comments on Exercise Mighty Derringer," 18 December 1986, Classification unknown

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Seeing a need for better integration of the consequences phase into MIGHTY DERRINGER, Gant emphasized the need for state and local actors to play a stronger role in such exercises to give them greater realism. Her discussion of the Federal Radiological Response Plan led to a recommendation that NEST staffers play a role in post-incident field monitoring of radiation hazards because they would be the "first available federal personnel."

Document 50: William H. Chambers, CONUS Site Controller, to Carl Henry, Chief Controller, "'Quick Look,' Report, Mighty Derringer CONUS," 19 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Chambers provided some detail on the role of the Indianapolis nuclear detonation in MIGHTY DERRINGER. According to the script, the device had been "rendered-safe," but the exercise leaders "deviated" from the script by improvising a "simulated nuclear detonation."

Document 51: Zolin Burson, EG&G Energy Measurements, to Carl Henry, 29 December 1986, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Like Gant, Burson pointed to the need for more involvement by state and local actors in such exercises, suggesting that "if the real Governor and Mayor" had been present, "they would have had a much stronger influence."

Document 52: Richard F. Smale, Associate Group Leader, to Jesse Aragon, HSE Division Leader, "Trip Report December 7 to 13, Camp Atterbury (Indianapolis), Indiana," 7 January 1987, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Smale provides more detail on the role of nuclear devices in the exercise scenario, noting that "terrorists had stolen two … from a developing nuclear capable country." He also observed that "when control of the device had been obtained, the NEST scientists could have disabled it."

Document 53: Thomas S. Dahlstrom, EG&G Measurements, to William H. Chambers, Carl Henry, and Norm Bailey, "Mighty Derringer Observations," 13 January 1987, Classification unknown, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

After noting that his "overall reaction" was "quite positive," Dahlstrom believed that "confusion" emanated from a basic problem: the players did "not comprehend the complexity of an OCONUS deployment - specifically how the State Department controls the matter."

Document 54: F. Jessen/LLNL to G. Allen and W. Adams/NVO, "Mighty Derringer Critique," 16 December 1986, Rev[ised] 13 January 1987, Secret, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Jessen pointed to a number of problems, for example, that "many of the participating agencies were not serious players," the "unrealistic background information" on the "fictitious" countries and people, "bad guidance on the use of existing proliferant country data," and failure to recognize that "information to be assessed related to intelligence reports of a nuclear terrorist threat." Especially disturbing was the relocation of the command post to a "safe location," while NEST personnel were not notified": "the blatant lack of concern for [their] safety … is inexcusable."

Document 55: Julie A. Orcutt/HSE, Los Alamos National Laboratory, to Jesse Aragon, HSE Division Leader, "Trip Report: Mighty Derringer Exercise, Montrev Site," 13 January 1987, Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

During the exercise, the on-scene commander at Indianapolis had decided against building a "containment structure" to prevent the spread of hazardous material because of the risks. That meant, however, that plutonium would be scattered about which presented dangers of "lung doses." Los Alamos staffer Julie Orcutt recommended the provision of more anti-contamination equipment, such as foam mitigation, to reduce dangers to officials entering the blast area.

Document 56: J. Doyle to Gylan C. Allen, "EG&G Comments for Mighty Derringer," 14 January 1987, Classification unknown, excised, incomplete copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Noting that the exercise provided "very valuable training," Doyle saw such problems as the "sheer magnitude" in numbers of players, cramped space, and inadequate communications staffing.

Document 57: G.C. Allen, USDOE/NVO, "Mighty Derringer: Comments and Observations," 15 January 15, 1987, Classification unknown, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Among the shortcomings cited in Allen's rather critical evaluation were poor communications and weaknesses in interagency coordination.

Document 58: William E. Nelson, Emergency Response, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to Carl Henry, Los Alamos National Laboratory, "'Quick Look,' Report, Mighty Derringer," 21 January 1987, Secret, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Jumping the gun was a weakness cited in Nelson's critique: players "did not wait for establishment of credibility before acting," which made a "shambles of an orderly assessment of information." He also observed that NEST search team "escorts" needed "experience in covert operations" to "prevent inadvertent acts that would alert terrorists." Nelson's report included a number of observations made by other participants.

Document 59: J. Strickfadden, LANL, to Bob Nelson, "Mighty Derringer Comments," n.d., Secret
Source: Energy Department FOIA release

The overall positive evaluation - the "most realistic exercise ever conducted by the NEST community" - included some criticisms, such as "chaotic" operations at the Working Point [WP] and a shambolic state of affairs at the "reentry" point (detonation zone).

Document 60: Milt Madsen (Monitor) to Bob Nelson, "Mighty Derringer Observations," n.d., Secret, excised, incomplete copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Madsen's comments included suggestions for future improvements in NEST's organization: for example, to avoid fragmented committee operations, NEST needed a technical program manager.

Document 61: Peter Mygatt, "Mighty Derringer - Media Play Report," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Energy Department spokesperson Mygatt's evaluation of the player's management of the media was generally positive, although he saw a few failings, e.g., the Joint Information Center never called a news conference, "which is unheard of in an emergency.".

Document 62: Walter Nervik, Senior Command Controller, to Robert M. Nelson, Exercise Mighty Derringer Controller, "Lessons Learned," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

An official at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Nervik wondered who would provide security after JSOC operatives attacked the terrorists in an overseas environment. Special forces personnel would leave the scene but the NEST would still need security resources.

Document 63: Walter Nervik to Bob Nelson, "Lessons Learned," n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Nervik was critical in another evaluation: the NEST team was far too large, players were complacent about a nuclear threat, there were no "penalties" for making a mistake, and playing conditions were "unreal." With respect to the latter point, the fact that the Montrev phase of the exercise occurred on U.S.-controlled territory, (the Nevada Test Site), "severely limits the stress placed on players in unfamiliar surroundings, dealing with strangers, and relying on untested sources of support." Nervik also saw a danger that participants would see exercises as "more of a game than a serious test of all facets of the NEST capabilities."

Document 64: Jack Campbell, Public Information, to Robert M. Nelson, Exercise Mighty Derringer Controller, n.d., Secret

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Campbell pointed to a weakness: higher level officials did not really "play." For example, after the JSOC assault, the State Department left Montrev, even though "lives of American correspondents were in jeopardy." Another surprise was that the Department of Energy NEST team did not establish a "public affairs" function, although in real life such a group would be highly active.

Document 65: "Mighty Derringer 86," unattributed, n.d., Secret, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

These handwritten notes raised several issues, such as the interaction between EOD and the Delta force players and the impact of the "play" in the United States on decisions in the OCONUS (Montrev) activity. One impact was that a "risky" disablement option was taken in Montrev in order to preserve evidence to help raise the chance for a successful operation in "site city" (Indianapolis).

Document 66: "Mighty Derringer," unattributed, n.d., Secret, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

Handwritten notes by another player raised basic organizational issues. The absence of a "chain of command" prior to the deployment made it unclear who EOD worked for. A serious concern was that the Delta Force players did not appreciate the "gravity of dealing with a nuclear device," an issue suggested by other reports (see document 41).

Document 67: "Mighty Derringer Search Planning," unattributed, n.d., Secret, excised copy

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This document provides a review of organizational arrangements established for the device search in Indianapolis.

Document 68: "Communications Observations (Site City)," unattributed, n.d., Classification unknown

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This review of communications systems concluded that this was the "best NEST communications exercise that I have observed."

Document 69: Second page of fax to Carl Henry, unattributed document, n.d., Classification unknown

Source: Energy Department FOIA release

This critique points to operational security (OPSEC) as the "real" problem, noting that players had organizational logos on their clothing and that "loose talk" in hotels and bars was "particularly bad."


CONUS Continental United States

EG&G Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier

EOC Emergency Operations Center

EOD Explosive Ordnance Disposal

EODTECHCTR Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technical Center (Navy)

ERDA Energy Research and Development Administration

EST Emergency Support Team

FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation

FCP Forward Control Point

FEMA Federal Emergency Management Agency

FRMAC Federal Radiation Monitoring Assessment Center

HRT Hostage Response Team

IND Improved Nuclear Device

JNACC Joint Nuclear Accident Coordination Center

JSOC Joint Special Operations Command

LANL Los Alamos National Laboratory

LLNL Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

NEST Nuclear Emergency Search Team

NVO Nevada Operations Office

OCONUS Outside the Continental United States

OSC On-Scene Commander

REECo Reynolds Electrical Engineering Corporation

SAC Special-Agent-in Charge (FBI)

SFOD Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta

SITREP Situation Report

TOC Tactical Operations Center

WP Working Point


[1] Charles Wilson and Carrie Schedler, Associated Press, "Indy battens down hatches for Super Bowl security,", January 30, 2012.

[2] Jeffrey T. Richelson, Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America's Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), pp. 19-21.

[3]For the range of recent views on the risks and probabilities of acts of nuclear terrorism, see John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimately Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Times Books, 2004), and Michael Krepon, "Are We Winning or Losing? (Continued)," Arms Control Wonk.

[4] Richelson, Defusing Armageddon; National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book Number 267, January 12, 2009, Document 16.