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NRC memo warns of attacks on nuclear plants

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Illustrations, photos and interrogations of al Qaeda members in Afghanistan prompted a federal agency to warn that terrorists planned to slam an airliner into a U.S. nuclear power plant.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said "no specific location or timeline was given for the attack," but FBI headquarters had sent the warning to all its field offices. The advisory went to power plants across the nation, including all 103 U.S. nuclear power plants.

"During debriefings of an al Qaeda senior operative, he stated there would be a second airline attack in the U.S.," the memo said. "The attack was already planned and three individuals were on the ground in the states recruiting non-Arabs to take part in the attack.

"The plan was to fly a commercial aircraft into a nuclear power plant to be chosen by a team on the ground. The plan included diverting the mission to any tall building if a military aircraft intercepts the plane."

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NRC officials issued the alert January 23, and CNN obtained a copy of the memo Thursday. The advisory states that FBI agents in Washington state had contacted Colombia Generating Station, the state's only commercial nuclear power plant, but did not elaborate.

Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security, stressed that the threat "is uncorroborated and not specific to any particular time, target or date."

Documents discovered in Afghanistan suggested al Qaeda had been looking into crashing an airplane into a power plant, specifically in Washington state, U.S. officials said. State officials said Wednesday that U.S. forces had also found a picture of the Space Needle in Seattle.

But Gov. Gary Locke downplayed the possibility of an attack, saying "federal officials assured us that Washington state is not under any credible threat."

'Ongoing matter of concern'

The issue of future terrorist attacks is an "ongoing matter of concern," a senior Bush administration official said.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Bush said authorities found "diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities" along with "surveillance maps of American cities and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America and throughout the world" in Afghanistan caves.

The president's comments "very vividly (remind) the American people about the threats to our infrastructure, including nuclear power plants," the official told CNN.

Ralph Beedle, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization for the industry, said energy officials are "prepared to deal with the threats."

"We have increased our level of security," Beedle told CNN. "We have continued to work with local law enforcement, state and federal agencies in order to provide the kind of security we think is necessary for these kind of plants."

Two weeks ago, the U.S. intelligence community issued a new, broad threat assessment based on documents and other material found in Afghanistan, U.S. officials told CNN. U.S. military intelligence officials are also concerned about intelligence gathered over the past few weeks suggesting possible attacks on military targets overseas.

"If we had specific information about the timing and place of a particular attack, we would get that to the authorities lightning quick," FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

-- CNN's Steve Young and Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.




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