CIA concerned about potential Y2K-induced nuclear accident

The CIA's national intelligence officer for science and technology on Thursday warned members of Congress that widespread Year 2000 failures are highly likely throughout Russia and Ukraine, increasing the risk of a meltdown at one of the many Soviet-era nuclear plants still in existence.

Lawrence Gershwin, the CIA's top analyst on science and technology issues, told members of the House International Relations Committee that while the chance of Year 2000 failures leading to a nuclear accident on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine remains low, the risk is "higher than normal" due to the certainty that Russia will experience some sort of power grid failure.

"The combined effects of possible Y2K-generated internal failures and external power problems increase the risk of a nuclear accident, particularly if operators believe they can compensate for Y2K malfunctions or for power supply reductions . . . by overriding plant safety systems," Gershwin said. "Similar operator actions led to the accident at Chernobyl."

Gershwin singled out Russia and Ukraine as two of Europe's least-prepared countries for the Year 2000 computer problem, adding that their lack of resources and late start at fixing critical systems virtually guarantees that both "will suffer economic and social consequences for some time."

Of particular concern to the CIA, Gershwin said, are Soviet-era nuclear reactors, which suffer from inherent design problems and offer few details on Year 2000 status and contingency plans. According to Gershwin, power grid failures could lead to a reliance on emergency power supplies that also suffer from low reliability and also could increase the potential that erroneous data would cause widespread operator errors.

"In the worst case, this could cause a meltdown and, in some cases, an accompanying release of radioactive fission gases causing localized contamination," he said.

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