"We think it's credible threats because this is a very serious conflict. We think that those plants have shown some vulnerabilities," Richardson said.
If terrorists seized a nuclear power plant, they could at a minimum cut off electricity in the Russian winter. At a maximum, they could cause a Chernobyl-like disaster that would spew radioactive debris into the atmosphere.
"We have taken all necessary measures to prevent this from happening," said Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo.
Rushaylo was in Washington this week for meetings with the FBI and State Department. But in 1995, when Chechen rebels seized a Russian hospital, they were able to hold off the Russian army until the government was forced to negotiate. Are the Russians any better prepared to deal with an attack on a nuclear power plant?
"Because of the economy, those workers who guard the plants aren't being paid. We're in general concerned about a lot of safety and security issues at some of these facilities," Richardson said.
But, says Richardson, there's not much the U.S. can do about it.
"We don't want to be responsible for containing terrorism in an internal struggle at Russian nuclear power plants," he said.
The threat will probably last as long as the fighting lasts, and despite American pleas for restraint, the latest intelligence shows the Russians are gearing up for a major offensive against the Chechen capital.
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