Finland examines Y2K readiness at Russia's nuclear plants

As IT executives and government officials around the globe rush to prepare their nation's systems for the year 2000, some are working double duty by examining the year 2000 readiness at organisations outside their national borders. While waiting to verify that its own nuclear power plants are ready for 2000, Finland is also trying to confirm that two Russian nuclear power plants near the Russian-Finnish border will also pass the year 2000 test.

The year 2000 problem revolves around difficulties or failures that computer systems will experience if they misinterpret or adversely react to expressions of 2000 in two-digit date fields. Systems that record the year as a two-digit number -- registering 1963 as 63, for example -- will have trouble coping with 2000, causing problems that have been predicted to range from minor to catastrophic.

Finland's Säteilyturvakeskus -- an organisation that reports to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and which cooperates with Ministry of Trade and Industry on nuclear issues -- has asked Russian authorities for safety information concerning a Russian nuclear plant in Sosnovyi Bor and one in the Peninsula of Kola.

Säteilyturvakeskus is not terribly worried, because Russia built the plants at a time when the country had no access to Western automation or computer technology and therefore relied heavily on analog technology. The plants' analog devices won't cause any year 2000 failures, and there has been almost no press coverage of the Russian power plants in Finland. But whatever computers the Russians do use in the running of the nuclear plants will be subject to the same year 2000 troubles as are anticipated throughout the world.

A Russian nuclear disaster could quickly become a problem for a host of other countries. The plant in Sosnovyi Bor (which contains four nuclear reactors and is located near St. Petersburg) is like the Russian plant that failed during the 1980s in Chernobyl. A nuclear disaster in Sosnovyi Bor could bring nuclear fall-out to southeastern Finland and the city of Helsinki in just a few hours, given the proper wind conditions. A disaster among the four-reactor plant on Russia's Kola Peninsula could (again with suitable winds) bring a nuclear danger to Lapland, northern Sweden and Norway, sources said.

Heikki Reponen, a Säteilyturvakeskus official who manages the cooperation between nuclear plants along the Russian-Finnish border, has received preliminary information about the plants from Russia, but found the material lacking in details. He is still waiting for further information about plant safety. The Russian authorities, for their part, have said the plants will have no year 2000 problems, Reponen said.

The end of August was the deadline for the private nuclear plant companies in Finland to respond officially to Säteilyturvakeskus' request for information about the readiness of their two power plants, located in the Finnish cities of Loviisa (on the southeast coast) and Olkiluoto (on Finland's west coast).

The two-reactor Loviisa plant was built in the early 1970s, based on Russian technology that was topped off with western expertise. The Olkiluoto plant -- built during the same decade -- also has two reactors and is based on Swedish technology. The companies running the plants said they expect no trouble but they are still checking and testing systems thoroughly, with the expectation that the plants won't need to shut down because of year 2000 problems.

Russia and Finland are hardly the only countries considering the impact of 2000 on their nuclear plants. Already in the US, federal officials said this year that electric utilities probably won't be entirely ready to supply power to the nation's businesses and homes on Jan. 1, 2000, because of computer problems. Failure to fix power plant software could force some US nuclear plants to shut down before Jan. 1, 2000, officials said in May.

According to Richard Cowles, year 2000 analyst at TAVA/R.W. Beck LLC (an electric-utility industry consulting firm in New Jersey) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will have to shut down more than 10 per cent of the US's nuclear plants after July 1999 because their systems won't be ready to handle the date rollover to 2000.

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