NRC and GAO argue nuclear Y2K readiness

David Arnett

Management & IT Editor

Two federal agencies are at odds over how ready U.S. nuclear power plants are to handle the Year 2000 (Y2K) computer bug.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says all 103 operating U.S. nuclear power plants are now ready for Y2K and have included the information on the Internet (www.nrc.gov). But the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) testified before Congress October 26 that the steps the nuclear industry has taken might not be enough to prevent serious problems. While this testimony is not, to date, linked to the GAO Y2K page, it is available at www.gao.gov.

Based on a review of responses from the nuclear power industry, independent inspection efforts, and ongoing regulatory oversight, the NRC said, “We conclude that the Y2K problem will not adversely affect the continued safe operation of U.S. nuclear power plants, and should contribute to grid stability during the transition period.”

In contrast, representatives of GAO offered testimony before Congress that casts doubt on the NRC assurances. Joel Willemssen and Keith Rhodes, directors of the accounting and information management division of the GAO, detailed weaknesses in the NRC reporting process to subcommittees of the House Committee on Science and the House Committee on Government Reform.

“While the nuclear power plants have reportedly completed Y2K contingency plans, it is unclear as to whether these facilities have validated their plans,” Willemssen and Rhodes testified. “NRC has not summarized the results of each question from all plants and therefore does not know how many plants responded affirmatively that they had indeed tested their plans. Further, NRC did not assess how the plans were being validated.”

In December 1998, the Washington, D.C.-based nuclear watchdog group Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) petitioned NRC to perform emergency planning exercises to confirm that nuclear plants are prepared for possible failure of their computer systems due to Y2K. NRC denied this petition, saying that nuclear power plants are already required to conduct exercises covering scenarios like a Y2K-related computer failure.

GAO acknowledged NRC`s position, but noted, “It is unknown whether or not each plant has recently tested, through normal emergency exercises, scenarios addressing potential Y2K induced failures. Therefore, given the known Y2K threat to nuclear facilities, we believe that NRC should obtain information on the scope and extent of nuclear power plants` emergency exercises, and whether these exercises have incorporated Y2K scenarios.”

In addition, Willemssen and Rhodes pointed out that NRC has not required nuclear fuel facilities or decommissioned nuclear power plants to develop specific Y2K contingency plans. Eight of 10 fuel facilities plan to be in safe shutdown mode during the Y2K changeover. The remaining two facilities-the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Paducah, Kentucky, and the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio-have contingency plans that are acceptable to NRC.

The decommissioned plants were not included according to these GAO experts, “as the agency had not reviewed them because NRC staff concluded that Y2K issues were highly unlikely to cause a potential threat to public health and safety at such plants.”

According to Willemssen`s and Rhodes` testimony, “Probably the most serious external risks faced by a nuclear power plant are the potential instability of the electric power grid and the loss of offsite electric power. NRC studies show that a major contributor to reactor core damage is a station blackout event.”

NIRS had also petitioned NRC last year to require that all nuclear power plants keep at least a 60-day supply of diesel fuel for backup generators needed to power reactor coolant systems and other critical areas in case of a power outage. The NIRS requested that plants also provide alternate means of backup power such as solar panels or wind turbines.

“NRC officials told us that nuclear power plants have taken certain actions to be ready for the Y2K rollover,” Willemssen and Rhodes said, “such as requiring additional staffing and stockpiling consumables (i.e., diesel fuel for emergency diesel generators). However, these do not entail a comprehensive set of actions to be carried out systematically by every operational nuclear power plant.”

At the same October 26 hearing a nuclear industry association spokesman assured the lawmakers the safety systems are all Y2K ready. “Safety is our top priority. As a result of the tremendous efforts of industry professionals, I am proud to report that all nuclear power plants have demonstrated that their safety systems are Y2K-ready,” said Ralph Beedle, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

“Additional personnel will be at nuclear power plants, backup communications systems are available, and response strategies have been developed. This advance preparation will reduce the likelihood that even a minor problem will disrupt power generation,” he explained. “Consistent with the industry`s commitment to safety, be assured that any problem that could affect safety would result in operators safely shutting down the plant.”

November 18, the North American Reliability Council Third Quarter Status Report Update, prepared for DOE, said, “the nuclear sector has complete 100 percent of Y2K testing and remediation at all plants” and that the “virtual completeness of the aggregate results provide sufficient assurance that the public power sector (in total) is ready for the new millennium.”

CSW DELIVERS ITS Y2K MESSAGES

Even before early speculation on the impact of Y2K had begun to circulate, Central Southwest Corp. (CSW) decided to take a proactive approach with Y2K communications in late 1997.

CSW spokesman, Steve Williams, said, “Initially, we designed a communications plan with four simple core messages. Around the core messages we then designed tools for employees. We took a proactive and an employee empowered approach.

“We know that employees are going to talk about Y2K. They are either going to say the truth or what they are gathering. What we were telling employees is that if they had a normal public contact position, then certainly we wanted them to use these core messages, but even if neighbors ask across the fence, we wanted employees to have correct information.” CSW`s Y2K core messages include:

– Year 2000 readiness is a top priority for CSW and its electric operating companies, and we are committed to being ready.

– We have built our business by providing high quality reliable service to our customers and we are committed to this high standard of service. While we cannot guarantee there will be no service interruptions, we are making every reasonable effort to provide a smooth transition into the year 2000.

– CSW`s readiness activities are based on a comprehensive inventory and assessment of our system.

– We are developing contingency plans to address possible Y2K issues internally as well as within the national electric delivery system and with our suppliers.

In several print brochures, the four core messages were expanded and updated, as specific information became available. “We also produced an internal Intranet site and populated it with tons of very specific detail,” Williams said.

“After we gave the first tools to the employees, they were enthusiastic and they have made the difference. Now in the final days, we are working with large special clients who could influence the load should they make an unexpected decision that night. That effort is being conducted through our emergency management office to make sure every client has the correct contact information if they need us.”

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