Although representatives of the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant say they are taking the threat seriously, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials say the recent warning is only one in a series of advisories and should not be alarming.
The NRC issued the Jan. 23 advisory after a captured al-Qaida operative revealed plans for an attack in which a commercial aircraft would be flown into an unspecified nuclear power plant.
Nuclear reactors nationwide have been on heightened alert since Sept. 11.
NRC Chairman Richard Meserve emphasized the solidity of the protective shields surrounding nuclear reactors. These shields are constructed of steel and concrete 2 feet by 5 feet thick.
Studies at the U.S. Department of Energy Lab in Los Alamos, N.M., in the early 1990s suggested that a commercial airliner probably would not be able to fully penetrate the shield around a nuclear reactor.
But NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said a number of factors could aid an airliner in penetrating a nuclear shield.
"The size of the aircraft, the amount of fuel and the number of people on board can all be contributing factors," he said.
Meserve said he could not be certain of the consequences of a large airliner fully loaded with jet fuel crashing into a nuclear power plant.
Officials from Carolina Power & Light Co., which owns and operates Shearon Harris, located 30 miles southeast of Chapel Hill, said they are taking the advisory seriously.