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May 14, 2002

Security boosted at nuke facilities
By Bill Gertz

     The Bush administration has taken steps to tighten security at U.S. nuclear power facilities based on documents and information obtained from al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, a White House spokesman said yesterday.
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     "As the president said earlier this year, we know that al Qaeda has been gathering information and looking at nuclear facilities and other critical infrastructure as potential targets," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security. "Because of that, we have strengthened security at those facilities."
     He declined to comment directly on a report in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times about terrorists targeting the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant or other nuclear facilities in Pennsylvania.
     Mr. Johndroe said the administration had no plans to issue an alert or to raise the "national threat level."
     U.S. intelligence officials told The Times that reports received last week indicated that Islamic terrorists were planning to attack a nuclear facility to coincide with Independence Day celebrations.
     Asked about The Times report, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday, "I don't discuss intelligence to confirm it or to deny it, either one."
     U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence reports said authorities were investigating the threat. The government was taking the threat seriously, but officials said the intelligence was not strong enough to issue a new alert.
     The information was said to be based on recent intelligence. The reports did not identify how the attacks would occur, but officials said one likely method would be to fly a hijacked airliner into a nuclear power plant.
     Intelligence officials also said separate reports from captured al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah indicated that two al Qaeda terrorists were working secretly within the United States to obtain nuclear material for use in a radiological bomb attack. Radiological weapons combine conventional explosives with radioactive material to increase lethality.
     The terrorist leader said the two men — an American and an African national — planned to construct the radiological bomb in the United States from stolen or covertly purchased nuclear material, the officials said.
     Sue Gagner, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency in charge of nuclear power plant security, sought to play down intelligence reports of a threat. She said officials have received "no credible threat" against U.S. nuclear facilities.
     Asked about intelligence related to Three Mile Island or another plant in Pennsylvania or the Northeast, she cited a policy of not commenting on intelligence reports.
     "We are in continual contact with the FBI and the intelligence community," Miss Gagner said.
     No additional security measures have been taken as a result of any recent threat information, she said. However, the NRC in February ordered U.S. nuclear power plants to increase security.
     NRC Chairman Richard Meserve told a House subcommittee last month that no "specific, credible" threats had been made against nuclear power plants. NRC officials are reviewing nuclear plant security, he said.
     As for the threat of an airline hijacker conducting a suicide attack on a nuclear plant, Mr. Meserve said: "No existing nuclear facilities were specifically designed to withstand the deliberate high-velocity direct impact of a large commercial airliner, such as a Boeing 757 or 767. Prior to September 11, such a scenario was not considered to be a credible threat."
     Still, nuclear power plants are massive structures with thick walls and barriers capable of resisting a tornado, he said.
     Mr. Meserve said the NRC, after consulting the Pentagon, decided against deploying anti-aircraft missiles around nuclear plants.
     "Any such application of anti-aircraft weapons would present significant command and control challenges," he said. "The operator of the anti-aircraft weapon would need continuous contact with someone who could authorize the downing of a civilian commercial aircraft, with all of the attendant implications, and would need to be able to carry out that act in seconds. It may be difficult in this context to distinguish an aircraft that had drifted off course from an aircraft on an attack mission."
     Anti-aircraft batteries also could cause collateral damage to surrounding communities, he said.
     "For these reasons, the commission believes the best general approach at the present time to deal with threats from aircraft is through strengthening airport and airline security measures," Mr. Meserve said.

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