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Reactors focus of terror fears
A threat against the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania turned out to be bogus, officials decided Thursday morning--after the scare had shut down three nearby airports for several hours.
The incident underscores the heightened level of alertness surrounding the nation's 103 commercial nuclear reactors. It comes while security at those reactors is already tightened because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Three Mile Island is operated by Exelon Nuclear, the same company that runs the six nuclear power plants in Illinois. Those six sites have 11 nuclear reactors.
Although the threat against Three Mile Island turned out to be false, there are other indications of sensitivity over nuclear security.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is continuing to revamp its Web site so that information there does not help would-be terrorists. By Thursday, only mundane press releases about upcoming meetings, the agency's mission statement and similar material remained on the site--not the detailed technical information that, before Sept. 11, was often praised as a model of open government.
"We took our Web site down Oct. 11 to enable us to thoroughly go through it and see if there was any information there that shouldn't be," said Pam Alloway-Mueller, an agency spokeswoman.
She said the watered down Web site was put up Wednesday and agency staff will continue to evaluate what other information can be returned to the site.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already acknowledged that nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand the deliberate crash of a jumbo jet; officials are studying what would happen in such an attack, and what might be done to protect against it.
Ann Mary Carley, a spokeswoman for Exelon Nuclear, said the agency notified the company of a "credible" threat against Three Mile Island at about 7 p.m. Wednesday, but that by Thursday morning federal officials had decided the threat was not credible.
At the time, however, Exelon responded by putting its emergency operations center into action and bringing in additional personnel.
"I can't tell you what they were," said Carley, "but there were additions put in place."
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down airports within 20 miles of the power plant at about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the largest airfield, Harrisburg International Airport, which is just a couple miles from Three Mile Island and has 120 flights per day--60 in and 60 out.
"There was some kind of threat there," said the spokesman, Scott Miller. "We still don't know what it was."
Neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission nor Exelon would say what the threat was or how it was later determined to be "non-credible."
Miller said the threat also shut down Lancaster Airport, which only has four commercial flights per day, and Capital City Airport, which is a general aviation airport for small, private aircraft. The FAA lifted the flight ban by about 1 a.m. Thursday, Miller said.
By that time, three flights scheduled to fly into Harrisburg International had been canceled and two other flights had been diverted. That caused delays for five flights scheduled to leave Harrisburg Thursday morning, but by Thursday afternoon everything was back to normal, Miller said.
"Our passengers said they would rather be inconvenienced a bit," said Miller. "Err on the side of safety, rather than take a chance."