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.
CP&L spokesman Keith Poston said officials at the plant are doing all they can to ensure the safety of employees and community members.
"We're taking all the steps we can take, but the plants themselves were not designed to withstand the impact of a commercial airliner," Poston said.
Poston also stressed the efficiency of CP&L's emergency plans for dealing with things such as radiation leaks. The plans are assessed and graded periodically by the state, the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Although Poston said security reasons prevented him from revealing the grade Shearon Harris received, he said the plans have worked well in terms of security.
FBI spokesman David Martinez summed up the possibility of a future terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
"We know of no threat, but the information has been released that al-Qaida has explored the idea of an attack on an unspecified nuclear facility at an unspecified time," he said.
The NRC advisory more specifically states that "the attack was already planned, and three individuals were on the ground ... recruiting non-Arabs to take part in the attack."
Hannah said a collision could cause a substantial release of radiation, but he added that the risk of a wide-scale radiation leak resulting from the crash of a commercial airliner "is very small."
"The NRC, after September 11, began looking at security procedures across the board and seeing if long-term improvements would be necessary."
contributed to this article.
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