US nukes lag in Y2K security, monitoring

The US nuclear power industry says that most of the nation's 103 plants are year 2000-ready and that any remaining issues to be resolved won't affect plant safety.

Its critics aren't so sure.

For example, security and plant monitoring systems still need to be fixed at about a dozen plants across the US. Those are the same types of systems that caused the infamous accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island facility in 1979, according to Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Most nuclear plants "are doing an incredible amount of work" on the year 2000 problem, Lochbaum said. However, there's still a plant or two "that hasn't gotten the message", he added.

He said he's also concerned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees the nation's 103 nuclear power plants and has been auditing their year 2000-readiness, hasn't set minimum Y2K acceptance criteria for the plants to meet. As such, the Y2K-readiness of the 68 plants that have received a green light from the NRC "is too vague to ensure the public that nuclear plants will run safely", said Congressman Edward Markey (Democrat-Massachusetts).

A spokesman for the NRC declined to comment on the issue, pointing instead to the organisation's Web site (http://www.nrc.gov). A press release on that site related to a year 2000-readiness reports the agency issued July 7 states that none of the remaining year 2000 project work "affects the ability of a plant to shut down safely".

However, the report goes on to state that if, by the end of September, it appears that a plant won't be able to complete its year 2000 work by year's end, the NRC will take "appropriate" actions, including shutting down a plant if necessary.

Of the 35 nuclear plants that the NRC says still have year 2000 issues to resolve, most will wait until the fourth quarter - when demand ebbs - to make repairs, said a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group. "It just doesn't make a lot of economic sense to pull a plant off-line" during peak usage periods, the spokesman said.

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