Newly unearthed 1980s government video portrays how the US might respond to a nuclear terrorist attack

Vladimir Putin's belligerent rhetoric warning the United States not to become directly involved in his war on Ukraine has led to concern that nuclear weapons could be deployed. Ever since the Cold War, the United States has maintained a rapid response capability to deal with that eventuality.

Given today's environment, the timing of the first public release of video from a 1986 federal government training exercise that simulated a nuclear terrorist attack is intriguing. Gizmodo has obtained footage of the effort, code-named the Mighty Derringer, through a Freedom of Information Act request with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which operates under the Department of Energy.

The website details how "In December of 1986, the Pentagon, the CIA, FBI, the Department of Energy, and just about every other federal agency you can think of came together in Indianapolis for an enormous training exercise code-named Mighty Derringer. The plan was to simulate a nuclear terrorist incident and explore how every agency would react and whether they would cooperate. To enhance the verisimilitude of the war games, the U.S. government went so far as to record a fake news broadcast about a nuclear bomb exploding in Indianapolis. Until now, no one outside of the government has seen the video."

The fake newscast is a brief snapshot of how the U.S. government believed a nuclear attack would play out at the tail end of the Cold War. The video opens with a newscaster, “Jeff Schwartz,” explaining that it’s day four of an emergency situation in Indianapolis. It’s unclear if Schwartz is a pseudonym, though that seems extremely likely. Things are clearly not going well for Jeff and viewers of “Channel 9 Eyewitness News” as he tries to keep everyone watching at home calm.

When the U.S. started to see a sharp rise in terrorist threats in the early 1970s involving nuclear material (or at least claims of nuclear material), the NNSA formed the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, or NEST, in 1974. The team’s mandate was to stand at the ready to deploy a group of experts to anywhere in the country on a moment’s notice in response to threats that mentioned nuclear material. And when large public events happened and nuclear experts were needed just in case, NEST team members were the people who mobilized surveillance vehicles, helicopters, and other special equipment to sweep for anything radioactive.

While the NNSA is still very much an active organization, and while NEST still exists, the words that make up the acronym have changed to the Nuclear Emergency Support Team.

President Joe Biden's FY23 budget request is seeking $21.4 billion for NEST to modernize capabilities that the administration says are essential to maintaining nuclear deterrence while investing in innovative approaches to nonproliferation, counterproliferation, counterterrorism, and arms control.

You can watch the Mighty Derringer clip on YouTube.

Fake newscast from 1986 for Mighty Derringer, a nuclear terrorism exercise sponsored by the Pentagon