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Nuclear groups question terrorist threat

Contend NRC official, Bush's address offer divergent appraisals

A top nuclear-safety official has said he wasn't aware that any American nuclear power plant diagrams were found in Afghanistan, despite a terrorist threat cited by President Bush in his State of the Union address two years ago.

Edward McGaffigan Jr., a member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, responding to an environmental group's query, said this month that he testified in 2002 after the speech in at least one closed congressional hearing that he was not aware of any evidence that " `diagrams of American nuclear power plants' had been found in Afghanistan."

McGaffigan's statement has led some groups to assert that Bush either misled the country or mishandled the intelligence about the threat, because the NRC would be expected to play a pivotal role in safeguarding America's nuclear facilities.

If plans of US nuclear plants had been discovered, then the NRC should have been alerted to help prepare a security response, said James P. Riccio, a Greenpeace policy analyst who exchanged correspondence with McGaffigan.

"The Bush administration has once again failed to place the intelligence in the appropriate hands. The NRC needs to be able to take action against appropriate threats," Riccio said in a telephone interview yesterday.

The White House press office did not return calls seeking comment.

In his speech on Jan. 29, 2002, a major address in his campaign against terrorism, Bush said that "our cause is just, and it continues. Our discoveries in Afghanistan confirmed our worst fears and showed us the true scope of the task ahead. We have seen the depth of our enemies' hatred in videos where they laugh about the loss of innocent life. And the depth of their hatred is equaled by the madness of the destruction they design. We have found diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of American cities, and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America and throughout the world."

Bush's mention of nuclear diagrams has often been cited by opponents of the nuclear industry to call for tighter regulation and led nuclear-safety and environmental groups to ask for details and which facilities were threatened.

In a Feb. 4 letter to Greenpeace's Riccio, McGaffigan stated that "I did at one or more closed congressional hearings state that I was aware of no evidence that `diagrams of American nuclear power plants' had been found in Afghanistan." The NRC said McGaffigan testified at a hearing on June 20, 2002, nearly five months after Bush's address. In his letter, McGaffigan added that based on available evidence, "there is a general credible threat by Al Qaeda toward American nuclear power plants" but that the vast majority of the evidence "is appropriately classified."

"I use this letter to again urge all who engage in debates about the safety or security of US nuclear power plants to use accurate information in those debates," wrote McGaffigan, a Clinton appointee and a Boston native. His office said he wouldn't comment further on details of the matter, such as whether he should have had access to all security information. His term expires in 2005. There are two vacancies on the five-member commission.

The NRC, an independent agency, oversees operations and safety rules at the nation's roughly 100 commercial nuclear power facilities, including the reactors in Plymouth and Seabrook, N.H., and at various research and fuel sites. The sites could endanger neighboring communities if they were attacked or sabotaged, though most are heavily guarded.

Riccio said he believes Bush misspoke in his speech. He noted other administration claims haven't held up, including the warning that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy nuclear material in Africa.

At the June 20 closed hearing before the Senate's committee for the environment and public works, McGaffigan was speaking on behalf of himself, not the commission, said Beth Hayden, an NRC spokeswoman.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Washington, said he was at another hearing in June of 2002, which was public, when McGaffigan told him something similar after a senator mentioned Bush's speech. Lochbaum said he remembers McGaffigan told him something like "Mr. Bush's speech writers got a little carried away with that one."

"There's a disconnect somewhere," Lochbaum said. "Either President Bush didn't have an accurate account of what was found, or the NRC had the wrong picture. And the government needs to have an accurate picture in order to make the right calls. It's the old garbage in, garbage out syndrome."

Ross Kerber can be reached at kerber@globe.com. Wayne Washington of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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