(Excerpt: Follow-up report on NRC advisory and jet crash test video)
Aired January 31, 2002 - 18:00 ET

ANNOUNCER: This is LOU DOBBS MONEYLINE, for Thursday, January 31.
Here now, Lou Dobbs.

LOU DOBBS, HOST: Good evening, everyone. Tonight, a new threat against the United States. MONEYLINE has learned through a Nuclear Regulatory Commission document that Islamic terrorists may be planning yet another attack against America. The target: One of the nation's nuclear power plants, or an Energy Department nuclear facility.

Steve Young is here and has the story for us -- Steve.

STEVE YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, the warning went just a week ago from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington. It was sent to the 65 licensed power plant operators which run 103 nuclear power plants across the nation. The FBI paid a visit to at least one of those plants, the Columbia generating station, the only nuclear power plant in Washington state, and possibly other plants we don't know.

But we do know that the limited distribution not for public disclosure contained a chilling possible scenario from FBI headquarters to all field offices. Here's what it said, quote: "During the briefings of an al Qaeda senior operative he stated that there will be a second airliner attack in the U.S. 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 is 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 plan. No specific timeline or location was given for the attack."

The NRC document also says the FBI can't assess the credibility of the information.

Some who worry that security at nuclear power plants is inadequate are disturbed, but the advisory says no additional actions are requested at this time. That's because while the FAA has asked commercial airliners and private planes operating on visual flight rules to stay away from nuclear plants, it hasn't made that an order.

Some other facilities, such as independent fuel storage facilities, but not what would normally be considered weapons facilities, also received the government warning. The main thrust of the threat, if it's real, is to those nuclear power plants. They provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity. And if any one was hit by a fully fueled jumbo jet and the reactor fuel widely dispersed, the result could be eventual fatalities from radiation far worse than the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon back in September -- Lou.

DOBBS: Steve, thank you very much. We're going to be talking with two experts here in just minutes on these -- on the credibility of this threat and also on the security of the nation's nuclear power plants, and to also assess overall the potential harm that could be created. Steve, thank you very much.

* * *
Joining me now, as we reported to you, two of the country's foremost experts on nuclear energy and the nuclear industry. Paul Leventhal is with the Nuclear Control Institute; Ralph Beedle of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Gentlemen, let me begin first with this memorandum from the NRC. How concerned are you about it, Paul?

PAUL LEVENTHAL, NUCLEAR CONTROL INSTITUTE: Well, I'm quite concerned, because nuclear power plants today are not defended against an attack from the air. We have proposed that ground-to-missile batteries be in place at each nuclear power station in the United States. That's some 63 stations, having 103 power plants. And we think this is feasible, because we know of at least one country that's done this, South Korea. They have a special situation. They regard themselves in a state of war, and we think right now, with the kind of threat that this -- that this advisory describes, that these plants could well be vulnerable to attack.

DOBBS: Ralph, your view?

RALPH BEEDLE, NUCLEAR ENERGY INSTITUTE: I think that the nuclear power plants are safe today. I thought that they were safe on September the 10th. We have increased our level of security at the nuclear facilities as a result of September 11. We've increased the number of patrols, we've increased the number of security officers, we got increased cooperation and coordination with the local law enforcement, the FBI, the other national sources of defense.

I think the aircraft scenario that's described in this threat warning that -- that the NRC issued is one in which the United States has taken a great deal of -- a number of steps in order to preclude something of that sort through increased protection on our airlines, the airport security as well as airline -- aircraft security in itself.

DOBBS: Yet the threat, as represented by the NRC memorandum -- and there is, as they point out, no complete assessment of the credibility of the information gained by the FBI. But the idea that there would not be ground-to-air, as Paul has suggested, ground-to-air missiles and protection, because the potential for devastation here is so extraordinary. You would be against that?

BEEDLE: Well, it's not a matter of being against any sort of a defensive mechanism for these nuclear facilities. I think we also need to take a look at the potential for disaster for commercial aircraft in the event of something like this. I think that we need to take a look at the seamless security for the nation as a whole, and look at the aircraft threat to the rest of the critical infrastructure here in the United States.

And that's -- and that's provided by our Defense Department. I think that's the effort that our Homeland Defense organization is being tasked to deal with, and one in which we need to look to the future to provide that seamless protection for these facilities, as well as the rest of the nation.

DOBBS: Paul, you're shaking your head?

LEVENTHAL: Well, I just think that that's not an appropriate response at this point in time. These plants, in fact, are vulnerable to an air attack, if in fact a fighter interceptor couldn't catch up with an airliner that had been hijacked and coming in at full cruising speed. There is that possibility, and all that we're proposing are that these ground-air missile batteries, under strict military command and control and rules of engagement, be a last resort measure that could be brought into play, if in fact there was a jumbo jet on its way for an impact on a nuclear power plant with no possibility of it being intercepted.

And I don't see how any reasonable person could be opposed to that defensive measure since it's already in place at least one country, South Korea, to protect their plants against just such an attack.

DOBBS: Is there an implication here, Ralph, that the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry doesn't believe that these threats are real?

BEEDLE: We don't believe that this threat is real. This is not a credible threat. It's certainly some information that was provided through our national collection effort, and obviously came from somebody in the al Qaeda organization. But it hasn't been judged to be a credible threat by the FBI or the NRC. It's an advisory. We get a lot of information, and in this case it was another piece of information that the NRC thought that we ought to be aware of.

DOBBS: You said this, it says here that they had not assessed the credibility, that's quite different from saying it's not a credible threat.

BEEDLE: No. This says that the FBI had not completely assessed it.

DOBBS: I want to return to this discussion, gentlemen, because obviously, this is an issue of paramount importance to the security of the nation and your views are helpful to those who will make a determination.

* * *

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:. . . . And, Lou, one other thing I wanted to mention to you. We were working the phones a little bit since we left you a short time ago, and White House officials want to stress a little bit about what we're reporting, the concerns of threats to nuclear power plants around the country. Talking to a White House official just a short time ago, he is stressing that this information is uncorroborated and not specific to any target, not specific to any date or time. So obviously, an ongoing concern. The president himself talking about how diagrams of nuclear power plants and public water facilities were found in caves in Afghanistan. So the message is the threat is out there, but officials want to say that the information so far, uncorroborated and nonspecific. Lou, back to you.

DOBBS: And I think we could go further, your colleague at the White House, John King, talking with a nuclear energy source, suggesting that the information was passed along even though their determination was that it was, quote/unquote, "not credible."

But erring on the side of prudence, just as did the FBI, we felt compelled, and responsibly so, to tell the public about this threat and until it can be properly assessed because the damages that could ensue are extraordinary.

WALLACE: Absolutely.

DOBBS: Kelly Wallace, thank you very much.


DOBBS: We have been talking with Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute and Ralph Beedle of the Nuclear Energy Institute representing the industry. The issue here is the public safety. It was unthinkable what happened on September 11. Certainly, no one could have imagined such a thing. And having experienced now the unthinkable, is it not prudent, is it not in the interest of the nuclear energy itself as well as public safety to take every precaution with nuclear power plants?

BEEDLE: I think it is prudent. And I think we have increased our level of security. We have continued to work with local law enforcement, state and federal agencies in order to provide the kind of security that we think is necessary for these plants. We've increased our security in the airline industry to preclude the kind of hijacking evolution that took place on September 11. I think all those measures and the readiness of our department of defense is providing the kind of security that the nation needs for these facilities and the other critical infrastructure within this country.

DOBBS: Paul, your analysis?

BEEDLE: And I would add that that the -- that the fact that the aircraft collided into the World Trade Center and brought that Trade Center down does not suggest that same kind of a collision would cause a catastrophe that some people have postulated on the part of these nuclear plants. They're extremely robust. I'm confident that they would survive to protect the public health and safety even in the event of one of these collisions.

DOBBS: Are you satisfied with that?

LEVENTHAL: Well, the industry continues to point to the World Trade Center as an example of an easy target, but they always forget to mention the Pentagon, which is a low-lying target, probably as hard to hit as a nuclear power plant. And yet, the devastation on the Pentagon was there for all to see.

And what concerns me most is that the industry somehow resists the obvious remedies that are necessary. By law and regulation, they're not required to protect against an enemy of the United States, which means that the federal government has to provide that protection. And yet, because the industry is loathe to acknowledge the vulnerabilities of these plants, the government is not being fully informed, in my view, of the vulnerabilities in these plants, which could be essentially eliminated or at least reduced to an acceptable level by means of military protection. And we do not have military protection of these plants today. We're relying upon guard forces. In some case guards are hired at $8 an hour. A number of plants have rent-a-cop guards hired at $8 an hour -- less than janitors are paid -- at some of these plants.

It is not a uniform, elite, highly paid, paramilitary force, as the nuclear energy is to -- often states, as we've seen in their full- page advertisements.

Our point is that these plants today are vulnerable. A number of them are very close to major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles. And it is incumbent upon the public to realize that these plants are not adequately protected against an air attack, much less an assault from the ground or the water.

And the only way you're going to get that protection is if the public is heard. And at this point, the public has not been heard from.

DOBBS: Your response?

BEEDLE: My response to that is that it's unfortunate that Mr. Leventhal is so ill-informed. I do think that he is misrepresenting the nature of the security forces at our facilities. These are highly qualified, well-paid officers. Very...

LEVENTHAL: Can you say there are no rent-a-cops at $8 an hour?

BEEDLE: They are very well paid. They are -- we do have some contract-provided individuals. But they are trained to our standards; we control them.

I just think that Mr. Leventhal is making an obvious attempt to try and disturb the public in this matter.

LEVENTHAL: Well, on the subject of misrepresentation, I might ask Mr. Beedle if he is prepared to disavow the video of the Sandia (National Laboratories) test of a jet crashing into a wall where the industry, when asked about the test, says, well, it speaks for itself. And yet that wall was not anchored in the ground; that wall was on a cushion of air. It was a frictionless test to test the impact of a plane, not the survivability of a wall.

Are you prepared to say that that test, as represented by the industry, is a phony?

BEEDLE: No, that's an actual test. It was done by Sandia National Lab. It does, in fact, speak for itself.

LEVENTHAL: With a jet plane that was 5 percent the weight of a jumbo jet that had water in its fuel tanks, not gasoline, and the wall was 12 feet thick, compared with 3 1/2 to five feet thick of the containment.

I think the problem of misrepresentation lies with the industry, not with the Nuclear Control Institute.

DOBBS: Could I inquire, unless you would like to respond directly?

BEEDLE: Lou, I didn't come here tonight to have a debate with somebody that's -- that has a clearly anti-nuclear agenda, as does Mr. Leventhal. I'm here to tell you that the information that you got in your advisory was provided by the nuclear energy -- Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was information provided by the FBI. It was not credible. But as they have in many cases provided information because they thought it was necessary for the general protection of our facilities, the fact that it's in the public domain is a matter of record at this point.

And we're not disputing that. We are ready and prepared to deal with the threats that are posed by that and others in this industry.

DOBBS: I have a break that I have to do. I'd like to come back -- if you gentlemen could stay just for a few more moments to round out the issue and the discussion, if that's all right with you gentlemen.

We will continue with this discussion and, obviously, the rest of the day's news in just a moment. Stay with us.


DOBBS: We're back with Paul Leventhal and Ralph Beedle.

And I want to get to one issue because -- and you really raised it, Ralph -- the issue of your organization being anti-nuclear. Is it, in point of fact?

LEVENTHAL: We're not an anti-nuclear organization, we're a nuclear nonproliferation organization. Our objectives are to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional nations or to groups, and to protect nuclear facilities from attack and other means of nuclear terrorism.

And I think Mr. Beedle knows that. We're not an anti-nuclear organization. Have no agenda to shut down the industry. But we feel that if these plants cannot be operated as safely and as securely as humanly possible, they should be shut down until they can be.

DOBBS: And let me ask you, if I may, Ralph: As Paul points out, the federal government is responsible for the security and the safety of these plants. It doesn't cost the nuclear power industry anything to go to the most maximum extent in terms of protecting them. Why would you not be in favor of such a thing?

BEEDLE: We are at the maximum protection level that we are capable of providing. If, as Mr. Leventhal suggests, we put in anti- aircraft guns around these plants or anti-aircraft devices of some sort, we're talking about something that the federal government needs to do through its military forces. It's not a matter of the utilities providing that kind of protection.

DOBBS: But you would not be against that, or opposed to it?

BEEDLE: If the president and Governor Ridge decide that the national defense, homeland defense requires a -- that this country be loaded and equipped with anti-missile, anti-aircraft batteries, then I suspect that that's exactly where this nation will end up.

LEVENTHAL: It's incumbent upon the...

BEEDLE: It's not a matter of the utilities making that determination.

LEVENTHAL: It's incumbent upon the utilities and the industry to make that recommendation to the president, to acknowledge the vulnerabilities if these plants are not adequately protected. And that has not been forthcoming.

BEEDLE: And it probably never will, Paul. We are not in the business of telling the president how to deploy his military forces.

DOBBS: OK. Gentlemen, we thank you very much for taking your time to examine this. Again, this discussion arising out of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission memo which Steve Young reported at the outset of the broadcast suggesting a threat -- not assessed as credible, but certainly sufficiently alarming -- that nuclear power plants, the targets of al Qaeda terrorists in this country.