An environmental group wants nuclear power plants shut down because
of the Y2K computer bug, but regulators and industry spokesmen say
that is unnecessary and reactionary.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service is so concerned about
the nation’s nuclear power system that it has filed a petition with the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That petition calls for all nuclear
plants that are not Y2K compliant to be shut down no later than December
“Industry and NRC alike continue to claim there is no safety
significance to Y2K vulnerabilities,” complained Paul Gunter of the
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an environmental activist
“What they point to is that the safety systems in U.S. nuclear power
plants are not imbedded chip vulnerable, or they’re usually hardwired.
What they’re saying that all of their Y2K vulnerable equipment is not
related to safety system initiation and maintenance,” explained Gunter.
Industry spokesmen disagree with Gunter’s concerns for safety and
claim there is no need to shut down any nuclear plants.
“I think they are being a bit alarmist. They’re actually recommending
a negative strategy. The most secure we can be is to have as many
options as possible,” said Gerry Cauley, Y2K program coordinator for the
North American Electric Reliability Council.
Gunter maintains that the nuclear power plants will face many safety
concerns because of the hazards of the Y2K millennium computer bug.
When the year 2000 arrives, some computer programs will not be able
to recognize the date properly and will malfunction.
Cauley claims the Y2K problem is being resolved in the electric power
industry, and Gunter claims the steps that are being taken not only risk
a loss of power but a nuclear accident as well.
“Both of the catastrophic incidents to date (Three Mile Island and
Chernobyl), were initiated from the non-reactor side of the power
stations. They were the result of those initiating and cascading into
the nuclear side. It is possible, for events from the non-nuclear side
to cascade into the reactor side with the potential for catastrophic
accident,” explained Gunter of his group’s major concern.
“Y2K vulnerabilities to systems on the second side can impact the
ability to shut down the reactor or maintain the operation of safety
systems. Any event of a power grid interruption will result in the
automatic scram, or shut down of the reactors.
“A scram is a violent event in a reactor much like an emergency stop
or slamming on the brakes in your car. It tests all systems and
structures and components within the reactor. Any frailties or age
related degradation or systems problems can complicate the scramming
of the reactor. Power interruptions will result in a scram of the
reactor,” said Gunter.
Taking over 100 nuclear power plants out of service is not a
practical or justifiable solution to the threat presented by the Y2K
bug. There are naturally occurring hazards which cause nuclear power
plants to shut down on a regular basis. Cauley believes it is important
to keep the nuclear plants operating, and he says it can be done safely.
Concern over potential safety hazards related to the Y2K bug prompted
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to announce that all nuclear power
plant operators would be required to offer written confirmation that
they had a program under way to deal with potential Y2K problems. The
requirement specifies that nuclear power plants must be “Y2K ready no
later than July 1, 1999.”
Twelve nuclear plants were selected for Y2K audits. About half of the
audits have been completed.
“Thus far, the audits indicate the plants have solid plans in place
for fixing any Y2K problems well before the new millennium arrives,”
described Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil A. Sheehan.
“Another Y2K initiative undertaken by the NRC has been the
preparation of a Y2K contingency plan. Currently in the draft stage, the
plan will spell out how the agency will respond should Y2K problems
develop at any of the U.S. nuclear power plants,” Sheehan told
“If we had systems dramatically failing some of these tests (for Y2K
problems), and it looked like we were going to lose power plants
and transmission lines, I would the first one to say we really need
to take a different strategy here, but we just don’t see that result
being there,” Cauley told WorldNetDaily.
A recent storm caused a power outage in Scotland which forced a
nuclear power plant to resort to backup generators while shutting
down. The backup power was then lost causing a near catastrophe at
the plant. Reports claim the problem could have been prevented if
there were more staff on duty at the time. Cauley says that could
not happen in American nuclear plants.
“The nuclear plants typically have a lot more personnel on site than
a fossil plant (coal, natural gas, or oil fired),” Cauley explained.
“Where a fossil plant might be running with 20 or 30 people, a
nuclear plant typically will have maybe a couple hundred people
Because of rotating shift assignments, only about 25 percent of
available staff are on duty at any one time at a nuclear power
plant. In the event of an emergency there are many additional staff
members who can be called to duty, according to Cauley.
There are obvious economic incentives for power plants to avoid
being shut down for any reason. Gunter claims that those incentives
result in nuclear plants taking unwise risks. He believes those
profit driven incentives are the reason the North American Electric
Reliability Council and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have
changed the terms they use.
Power plants are now encouraged to be “Y2K ready” instead of “Y2K
compliant.” Gunter says the change in terminology is purposeful.
“We are using it purposely,” agreed Cauley. “It’s just as a
practical matter. Y2K compliant is a very rigid standard. It forces
you to spend 90 percent of your effort for the final 5 percent of
benefit. The standard that we have as a practical matter is, ‘is the
facility completely ready to operate?’”
A computer program that operates and functions correctly after the
start of the year 2000 may not be Y2K compliant even if it works
just fine with not safety concerns. This could happen if the
program produces incorrect dates in log entries, or the wrong date
on a display panel. These are nuisance problems, not safety
issues. The system would be Y2K ready, but not Y2K compliant,
according to Cauley.
“There’s a very diverse mix of strategies in preparing for Y2K. In
some cases a device is being replaced. In some cases software
programs are being replaced by the vendor with compliant software.
In some cases a date is rolled beyond 2000 and tested and it works
fine and it’s left there. In some cases they are rolled back to
prevent the rollover. In some cases there is a remediating type fix
that works around the problem. It’s not any one solution,” Cauley
A national test of all power plants will take place on April 9 to
determine if the national power grid can continue to function
without the use of the phone system for voice and data
communications. It is possible that the Y2K bug could knock out all
communications, which would force the power plants to shut down.
The drill will make use of a radio system that is already in use,
and which will force power companies to rely on human eyes and ears
to monitor meters and dials, then relay the information by radios.
All the testing and drills are not evidence that the power companies
expect a disaster on New Year’s Eve 2000.
“Those are not signs that we expect all hell to break loose. We’re
just being conservative in terms of preparing and so on,” said
Cauley, who added that power companies are just trying to put the
Boy Scout motto into place.
“We’re not finding major things that would cause alarm,” explained
Cauley of his conviction that the nation’s power grid will remain
on-line and nuclear plants will be safe. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-UT, agrees
“I still think we will have brownouts,” Bennett told WorldNetDaily.
“I don’t know how long they will last. I don’t know where they will
hit, and I don’t know how severe they will be. The very nature of
the problem indicates that we cannot get through this with complete,
absolute, 100 percent assurance, although there are people in power
companies that are now telling me that’s what we can depend on.
“My own sense of the thing says, no, there’s got to be some
brownouts. There will be some interruptions, but the power grid will
not fail. Don’t go out and dig up your backyard and bury propane
tanks, or go out and buy your very own generator, because I think we
will have power,” predicted Bennett, who is the chairman of the
Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000.
What is the worst case scenario?
“It’s on the scale that Sen. Bennett is now describing. We can’t say
with certainty that there won’t be local or isolated areas that would be
out for a short duration. I don’t think we’ll be able to guarantee that
until the end,” said Cauley.
“Our goal and expectation now, and we’re beginning to get confidence
that it’s possible, is that nobody loses their lights. Can I say that
with certainty? The answer is no,” he said.
David M. Bresnahan, a contributing editor for WorldNetDaily.com, is the author of “Cover Up: The Art and Science of Political Deception,” and offers a monthly newsletter “Talk USA Investigative Reports.”
He may be reached through email and also maintains a website.