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Nuke plants prepare for Y2K

The nuclear power industry is warning that plants will be shut down if they don't meet the deadline for Y2K compliance.

As many organizations today mark the 500th day before January 1, 2000, one government agency is preparing to raise its level of effort--the nuclear power industry is warning that plants will be shut down if they don't meet the deadline for Y2K compliance.

In coming weeks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will begin receiving status reports from various nuclear power plants around the country on their individual Y2K remediation efforts. And starting in September, on a sampling basis, the commission will begin conducting onsite inspections of plants to ensure progress is being made, according to commission papers.

The official word from NRC is that its mission critical systems, seven in all, will be Year 2000 compliant so that its communications and data interfaces will continue to work properly after the century date change.

This includes the Emergency Response Data System which is directly linked to operating nuclear power plants and performs critical communication and data transmission functions that provide near real-time data to NRC incident response personnel during emergencies. The upgrade is on schedule to be completed, tested, and implemented by March 4, 1999, the federal government's deadline, according to the commission.

Though the NRC can verify that its own program is on schedule, it is less able to ensure the progress of licensed nuke plants' Y2K remediation efforts.

During the Global Year 2000 Action Day conference earlier today, Hugh Thompson Jr., the deputy director of the NRC, said that whole plants "might have to be shut down until they complete their Year 2000" remediation programs.

The potential impact of the Year 2000 problem on nuclear power plants varies with the type of computer systems used. Different plants depend on different systems, according to the commission. Plant operators rely on software to schedule maintenance and technical surveillance. They also use digital process control tools and other commercial off-the-shelf software and hardware, for monitoring cooling systems and valve controls, as well as systems for tracking post-accident plant conditions.

"The issue for us is safety over electricity" generation, Thompson said.

Ironically, the age of some of these systems may benefit efforts to make them Y2K compliant because a lot of them are analog-based rather than digital. "But that's not to say they don't rely somewhat on digital date measurements," he said.

Those systems and computer equipment that are most likely to be affected by the Year 2000 bug are those that operate plant security, handle plant processes, data scans, logs, alarms, and safety displays; and monitor radiation.

An additional concern regulators have about individual plants is local electric power providers' dependence upon those plants. Nuclear power reactors have two independent sources of offsite power and are designed to shut down if a loss of all power occurs.

Though the commission does not have authority over the electrical grid system, officials from the NRC said they are working with other agencies in the government to share information and give assistance on related power grid concerns.