Viewpoint

Nuclear power plants aren't ready for Y2K thanks to a lax NRC.

With scores of nuclear power plants across the U.S. not ready for Y2K, and some pushing readiness deadlines to within two weeks of the end of the year, concerns about the likelihood of meltdowns and overheated reactors affecting public safety are growing. Nuclear power comprises 20% of electric power in the U.S., and 40% of electric power in the Northeast. A Nuclear Energy Institute survey reveals that 22 of the nation's 103 nuclear reactors are not expected to be 100% Y2K ready until the fourth quarter. American Electrical Power's D.C. Cook nuclear plants in Bridgman, Mich., and Southern Company's Farley reactor in Columbia, Ala., are not slated to be Y2K ready until mid-December. Plants in North Carolina and in west Texas won't be ready until the end of November. Is there enough time to fix and test them all? Will contingency plans be developed and tested with sufficient time to make any necessary adjustments? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set July 1 as the deadline for nuclear plants to report their Y2K readiness status. Many plants posted readiness dates scattered throughout the rest of the year. The NRC has not issued uniform Y2K compliance guidelines. This gaping hole gives carte blanche to nuclear companies to decide what compliance means to them, and the definition is certain to vary from plant to plant. A spokesman for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Louis Obispo, Calif., said that only one system remains to be readied for Y2K: the main enunciator, which monitors what's going on in the plant. Diablo Canyon has purchased the compliant upgrade from the vendor, and is testing it before it will be installed. But delaying implementation of such an integral piece of equipment may not leave sufficient time to check the system for Y2K. The Diablo Canyon spokesman referred to the NRC reporting deadlines as "arbitrary reporting dates," which sounds a lot like plants are ignoring NRC guidelines and taking their sweet time preparing for Y2K. One need look no further than nuclear disasters in Chernobyl on Apr. 26, 1986, and Three Mile Island Mar. 28, 1979, to see that the potential problems with nuclear plants are real and could have disastrous effects. Three Mile Island, in Middletown, Pa., as it happens, doesn't expect to be Y2K-ready until late October. The official word on nuclear preparedness by American Electrical Power, Southern Company, and other publicly traded utilities with nuclear plants will come over the next few weeks as they file quarterly 10Q regulatory forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In those reports, companies are required to provide an update on Y2K preparations and costs. For its part, the NRC has been saying that functions related to safety are largely Y2K-proof. Greta Joy Dicus, chairman of the NRC, recently testified to the Senate that the NRC was unaware of any Y2K problems in nuclear power plant systems that directly impact actuation of safety functions. "The majority of commercial nuclear power plants have protection systems that are analog rather than digital or software-based, and thus are not impacted by the Y2K problem," she said. She added that errors such as incorrect dates in printouts, logs, or displays have been identified in some safety-related devices, but said the errors do not affect the functions performed by the devices or systems. Most Y2K problems, she added, are in nonsafety systems, such as security and plant monitoring, that support day-to-day plant operation but have no functions necessary for reactor safety. But isn't day-to-day operation of a nuclear plant vital? Y2K fixes at these plants are far bigger issues than shutting down and rebooting PCs. To date, the NRC has received reports from the 103 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S., and 30 still have outstanding work to perform on systems needed for power generation. Most disturbing is Dicus' acknowledgment that the NRC was unable to thoroughly assess 14 plants. Follow-up reviews for eight of those plants have since been completed, and review activities are scheduled for the remaining six plants. Sen. Robert Bennett (R, Utah), has said he is concerned that contingency plans, which include staffing two NRC monitoring centers and having on-site inspectors with global satellite phones, have not been sufficiently tested. "Nuclear power plants are not planning tests to ensure that personnel are fully trained in the use of manual procedures should computer monitoring systems fail," said Bennett. The NRC is developing a Y2K Early Warning System to facilitate the sharing of information. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, several Western European countries, Canada, and Mexico have committed to using this system. The NRC is in discussions with Argentina, Brazil, Central and Eastern Europe countries, and Russia regarding their participation. The global perspective is noteworthy, but what if the U.S. suffers a tragic power failure or nuclear disaster in its own backyard due to NRC incompetence? Diablo Canyon, for instance, distributes enough electricity to the U.S. power grid to equip 2 million residents of northern and central California, not to mention the public transit network, traffic lights, 911 system, hospitals, and airports of many cities. Think of the suffering and chaos if any of these is without power for an extended period of time.
Joshua Hallford covers the nuclear industry for Bridge News.

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