- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine Rainer Goehring spends his days helping ensure the Chernobyl nuclear plant is safe, but he plans to be far away when the New Year rolls around. Just in case.
Ukrainian officials say Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident, has been purged of the year-2000 computer problem.
Mr. Goehring, a civil engineer who manages a project on storing spent nuclear fuel, says he’s heard the assurances and decided to leave.
“I’m not convinced,” said Mr. Goehring, a Belgian. “I propose everybody decide for themselves.”
International monitors say they do not expect all systems at Soviet-era nuclear power plants in Ukraine, Armenia and Lithuania to be year-2000 compliant by the New Year, creating the possibility of widespread blackouts or perhaps worse.
Mr. Goehring’s office is a few hundred yards from the towering concrete-and-steel structure known as the sarcophagus a haunting reminder of what happened at Chernobyl in April 1986 when its No. 4 reactor went up in flames and exploded.
The blast spewed radiation over much of Europe. The Ukrainian government has blamed at least 8,000 deaths on the accident including those killed immediately, workers who died in the massive cleanup operation and people who died later of radiation exposure.
No one is sure what glitches the result of unfixed older computers and embedded circuits mistaking 2000 for 1900 and going haywire might do in this former Soviet republic of 50 million people. Western analysts say cash-strapped Ukraine is among the world’s least-prepared nations.
At Chernobyl, a wall separates the crumbling sarcophagus that covers the ruins of the No. 4 reactor from the plant’s only functioning one, No. 3.
It is scheduled to be operating during the Dec. 31 rollover, with a normal shift of 178 workers on duty.
Chernobyl officials insist the year-2000 glitch, known as “Y2K” in computer jargon, will not cause a repeat catastrophe.
“Of course, we guarantee that,” said Anatoliy Iliichev, Chernobyl’s computer expert, adding that all problems have been fixed.
Foreign observers say chances are slim of glitch-induced nuclear accidents at Chernobyl or any of the other 57 Soviet-era reactors in Russia and elsewhere in the old Soviet bloc. But they say bug-triggered failures are possible in some plant systems.
“The primary headaches are Ukraine which has 16 [reactors], Armenia which has only one and to a slightly lesser degree two Chernobyl-type reactors in Lithuania,” said David Kyd, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. body that monitors the industry.
Mr. Kyd said the IAEA expects some secondary Ukrainian reactor systems, including computers designed to detect radiation leaks, to not be year-2000 compliant by year’s end, though primary systems may be ready.
Nor are all systems at the Lithuanian reactors expected to be ready, he said.
In addition, computer problems may not only be confined to the New Year. Because 2000 is a leap year, Feb. 29, March 1 and Dec. 31 could also be problematic, Mr. Kyd said.
In any case, the 14 working reactors at Ukraine’s five nuclear plants experience problems almost every week, frequently shutting down.
Chernobyl officials say reactor No. 3 underwent extensive glitch tests before resuming operation on Nov. 26 following months of repairs. The plant has two computer systems, a more than 20-year-old Soviet-designed Skala and a new Western backup system.
Although the new computer is not date-sensitive, it has been tested for glitch risk and the Soviet system was tested by simulating the year-2000 changeover, officials say.
“The central control’s main computer was found to be Y2K-sensitive. It controls all the reactor’s parameters and that was our main headache,” Mr. Iliichev said. “But we have conducted tests and are certain now the main computer will pass the changeover.”
Both computers supply operators with information on the reactor, but the reactor itself is run by analog systems that are not susceptible to the year-2000 glitch, said Borys Baranov, a Chernobyl shift manager.
Ukraine had pledged to shut down Chernobyl by 2000, but now says it needs foreign aid to complete two new reactors to compensate for Chernobyl’s lost power and to find new jobs for most of the plant’s 9,561 workers. Ukraine’s economy is in tatters and it depends on nuclear power.Ukrainian officials say Chernobyl has been purged of the year-2000 computer problem. International monitors say they do not expect all systems at Soviet-era nuclear power plants to be year-2000 compliant by the New Year.

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