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Assessing risk of Y2K meltdown

The nuclear power industry has failed to prepare properly for the Year 2000 computer bug, according to a watchdog group, making the potential for a nuclear meltdown high.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service continues to call for the shutdown of all nuclear power plants to avoid possible Y2K computer bug problems. A recent report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given critics additional reason for concern.

The NRC has confirmed that at least 35 nuclear power plants are not Y2K compliant and at best could only be Y2K ready by the end of the year.

NIRS noted that several of these reactors aren’t even scheduled to complete their Y2K fixes until November 1999 or later. The last-minute nature of such repairs leaves virtually no time for testing and further adjustment if needed, according to NIRS spokesmen.

“The NRC’s program is unacceptable,” said NIRS’ executive director Michael Mariotte. “It’s what we feared all along — this agency is waiting until the last minute and then just hoping that everything will work out OK. But with nuclear reactors, there is no margin for error. Simply hoping for the best is a sure indication that the worst can happen.”

The NRC presented a list of 35 reactors that are behind schedule, along with a projected date they hope to have the plants at least Y2K ready. Compliant means that a system is completely repaired and will function without error at the turn of the century. A system which is only Y2K ready is one that has various patches that may enable it to function even though it is not repaired. One such patch is to change the date to fool the system. Such a fix may cause other problems.

Commercial nuclear power plants that are not ready were listed by the NRC along with projected dates that they will be Y2K ready. NIRS officials are concerned that not enough time remains between the dates given and the end of the year to test the systems to be sure sufficient repairs have been made.

The plants that are not repaired, along with their projected dates of Y2K readiness are:

“Obviously, the nuclear utilities still have an enormous amount of work to do to repair their computer systems for the next century,” said Mary Olson, NIRS’ Y2K specialist. “The NRC is trying to put the best spin possible on this problem, but the fact is some utilities just aren’t going to be ready in time. Experts agree that no nuclear power will be needed in the U .S. on January 1, 2000, (because) there will be plenty of electrical generation available. For that reason, we join with our colleagues across the globe in calling for a nuclear moratorium on January 1– a shutdown of all nuclear facilities across the world. Who knows, we may find we can live without them permanently?”

NIRS submitted three petitions for rulemaking to the NRC at the end of 1998.

One would require any utility not fully Y2K-compliant by Dec. 1, 1999 to be closed until it can prove it is Y2K-compliant. Thus far, the NRC has not indicated that any reactor will be Y2K compliant by Dec. 1, 1999.

NIRS also wants the U.S. to provide assistance to Eastern-Bloc nuclear reactors that suffer from Y2K problems.

“More U.S. assistance is necessary for many Eastern countries to ensure that January 1, 2000 is not a time of meltdown, but of celebration,” said Olson. “The U.S. Congress needs to recognize that several Eastern countries need help in basic Y2K work and in enabling the implementation of meaningful contingency plans. Such assistance is of little cost to the U.S., but will be of great benefit if meltdowns and electrical grid disruptions can be avoided.”

The North American Electric Reliability Council issued a report on the Y2K computer bug challenge to the electric industry. The report states that uninterrupted production of electricity is critical to the nation’s infrastructure.

“More than any other element of the North American economic and social infrastructure, the electricity production and delivery systems must be dependable during the transition to Y2K. Every other critical element of infrastructure depends on the availability of an interconnected, reliable supply of electrical power. There is no doubt that cascading or even localized outages of generators and transmission facilities could have serious short- and long-term consequences,” the report states.

Electric power in the U.S. is distributed through a power grid, which is made up of four large interconnections, according to NERC. Disruptions within the grid could cause a failure of the entire grid, or perhaps a failure of one of the interconnections.

“A major disturbance within one part of an interconnection will rapidly have an impact throughout the interconnection and has the potential to cascade the effect to the entire interconnection,” the NERC report explains.

Although the loss of one, two, or even three power plants within an interconnection will not necessarily cause cascading outages, the Y2K problem may bring about such a failure. Many power plants have digitally controlled parts from the same manufacturer. These common modes could spell disaster.

“Y2K poses the threat that common mode failures (such as all generator protection relays of a particular model failing simultaneously) or the coincident loss of multiple failures may result in stressing the electric system to the point of a cascading outage over a large area,” NERC admits in the report.

The late dates announced by the NRC for so many nuclear plants to be Y2K ready make testing difficult in the time remaining before the end of the year, according to the announcement by NIRS. The NERC report specifically points out that individual testing of power plants is not sufficient.

“An individualistic approach to the problem may not cover all potential problem areas (e.g., coordination with neighboring utilities) and, thus, could adversely affect operations within an interconnection. An individual electric utility that invests tens of millions of dollars in solving Y2K problems could be affected in a major way by an outage initiated in neighboring systems that have not been as diligent. Therefore, preparation of the electricity power production and delivery systems in North America must be a coordinated team effort by those entities responsible for system reliability. All preventive programs do not have to be the same, but they do have to be coordinated. The industry will succeed or fail together in its readiness for Y2K,” predicts the NERC report.

WorldNetDaily previously reported the admission by NERC officials that critical information on the Y2K testing of power plants was purposefully being withheld from the public and from the Department Of Energy. That policy is still in effect.

NERC claims the challenges of meeting the Y2K transition can be handled successfully if critical areas are properly solved. NIRS believes the one problem which may be the greatest threat to the electric system, and to the safety of the general population, is the nuclear power plants. Only 15 to 20 percent of all power in the U.S. is generated from nuclear power, and NIRS claims all nuclear plants could be turned off in December with no adverse effects since usage is at the lowest level at that time of year.

NERC admits that newer power plants actually have a greater risk than older ones. Newer plants use digital control systems and older plants use analog controls. The digital equipment use time-dependent algorithms that could cause a system to trip offline if they fail.

It is also possible that global positioning satellites could fail in orbit, and some electric power plants depend on time signals from those satellites to run energy management systems. If the satellites fail the power system will fail. NERC is quick to point out that the satellites are controlled by the U.S. Government.

“Electric supply and delivery systems are highly dependent on microwave, telephone, and VHF radio communications. The dependency of the electric supply on facilities leased from telephone companies and commercial communications network service providers is a crucial factor. With telecommunications systems being the nerve center of the electric networks, it is important to address the dependencies of electric utility systems on the telecommunications industry during critical Y2K transition periods,” the NERC report states.

NERC conducted a test in April to determine if the power grid could function with only high frequency radio systems as a backup in case other telecommunications systems fail. Another test will take place in September.

There are protection systems within power plants, but the newer ones are controlled by digital devices. It is possible that a failure of these devices could bring loss of power from many power plants all at the same time.

“Although many relay protection devices in use today are electromagnetic, newer systems are digital. The greatest threat here is a common mode failure in which all the relays of a certain model fail simultaneously, resulting in a large number of coincident transmission facility outages,” explained the NERC report.

NIRS believes that the prudent approach is to shut down all nuclear plants in December and never turn them back on unless they can be proven to be fully Y2K compliant, not just Y2K ready. Spokesmen from NERC and the NRC claim the people from NIRS are overreacting.