Nukes & Y2K (10/99)

As the clock strikes 12 midnight on December 31, 1999, the world will hold its collective breath waiting to see if the predicted computer problems associated with Y2K will come to pass. Apart from Y2K disruptions feared in banking and the distribution of food, water and fuel – there are several critical areas, often overlooked, which could cause massive loss of life and catastrophic public health emergencies.

Nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons systems, we’re told, are Y2K compliant. But are these lethal systems and the public vulnerable to unthinkable Y2K disasters? The U.S. government itself states that not all utilities that run nuclear power stations will have completed computer safeguards to protect against millennium accidents. And the Pentagon has announced that 23 separate nuclear weapons systems will not be repaired in time to meet the Y2K deadline. Many observers are fearful that the situation is far worse in other nations which possess nuclear technology, such as cash-strapped Russia.

Between the Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, who analyzes the risk of Y2K-related accidents at nuclear power plants and with nuclear weapons systems.

Michio Kaku: I think the average person doesn’t realize how vulnerable we are to potential catastrophe, especially in Russia, but also in the United States with regard to nuclear power plants and weapons.  In the United States, we have 103 commercial nuclear power plants. The Nuclear Regulatory commission (NRC) has now given up hope that they will be Y2K compliant. Now this is scandalous, if you think about it. The NRC has stated that reactors only have to be Y2K-ready. Not Y2K compliant by the end of the year.

In fact, it turns out that 29 of the 103 nuclear power plants in the United States are not even Y2K ready yet. In other words, if a manufacturer says, Scout’s honor, cross my heart and hope to die, this pump will not fail, then that pump can be placed online and then that pump can be certified "Y2K ready." Y2K compliant means you’ve tested these things. Therefore, the NRC itself has admitted that it expects perhaps one reactor to fail Dec. 31st. That’s remarkable, that the government itself has pretty much admitted now that perhaps one reactor will fail mainly because of the cost it takes to make sure that all the reactors are in fact Y2K compliant.

Now the main problem is the energy grid and the power supply. The Y2K problem could very easily knock out the power and the diesel generators of a nuclear power plant. We’ve already had enormous problems with diesel generators. If the diesel generators are knocked out, we are talking about total loss of power at a nuclear power plant.

Now, if that’s not bad enough, in Russia, it is perhaps a thousand times worse. Because the Russian government has publicly stated there is no money to get its reactors up to speed and they are relying now on the United States to send teams of computer experts to Russia to help them upgrade their equipment. So not only are we expecting at least one major problem with a reactor in the United States, according to the federal government’s own estimates, but in Russia it’s so bad now that the British embassy has sent a secret memo out, which was leaked out a few weeks ago stating that British diplomats and their families should stay away from Russia during New Year’s.

Between the Lines: Could you tell us about some of the glitches that could occur in terms of nuclear weapons systems both here in the United States and Russia where there is a "launch on warning system" in place — where false radar detection of imminent nuclear attack could trigger off worldwide conflagration?

MK: The problem with Y2K is you could wipe out the radar and electrical systems, whereby our nuclear arsenal would be blind. And if the remaining radar systems picked up a bird or whatever, we’re not going to have backup systems to determine whether that bird is really a bird or a missile.

This actually happened in Russia a few years ago. It turned out that a Scandinavian country asked permission from the Russians to send a weather missile up that would get close to Russia. They got permission to do so. They sent the missile, but the permission never reached the Kremlin. And so, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was not aware of the fact that this missile was being launched. So when this missile was detected by the Russians, the Russians’ early defense people freaked out, and relayed the message to the Kremlin that Moscow was under attack. That is, a missile could very well impact the Kremlin, and if they waited too long, they would be radioactive ash. That’s the danger of "launch on warning." That if you launch on a bird, if you launch at the sighting of an airplane, or the sighting of a weather missile, then you are on a hair-trigger basis whereby you could set off a full-fledged nuclear war.

But the situation is much worse. Because the Russians have officially announced last month they cannot be Y2K compliant. They simply don’t have the resources to go through the computer code and find out where the mistakes are. What they are going to do is they’re going to try to do some simulations. Which is a very poor way to do it. But better than nothing. They’ve asked for American help, so the US government is going to be sending over groups of computer experts. But the danger here again, is if they have loss of power, meaning radar systems don’t work, they are operating blind with the few systems that are unrealiable.

And that’s why many environmental groups have advocated a positive program. As far as commercial nuclear power plants go, you can shut them down and ride out the Y2K problem. But with regards to a nuclear missile what they can do is remove our missiles from "launch on warning." So that we have our president and humans analyze what’s happening without having computers launch a nuclear attack on the hint that we’re being attacked by the Russians.

However I should point out that Congress gave the Pentagon a "D" when it comes to being Y2K compliant. So, cross your fingers when it comes to Dec. 31st.

To obtain more information on the dangers connected with Y2K and nuclear technology, visit the Nuclear Information Resource Service Web site at 

Scott Harris is WPKN Radio’s public affairs director and executive producer of Between the Lines. This interview was featured on WPKN 89.5 FM’s weekly news magazine for the week ending Oct. 1 1999. Access the archive of BTL radio shows at: http// Between The Lines Q&A is compiled and edited by Anna Manzo. To purchase a  subscription, contact or call (203)544-9863.

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