U.S. Federal Regulator Rejects Y2K Compliance as Standard for 103 U.S. Power Reactors
Relying on narrow and confusing definitions, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has officially asserted its decision to exempt the nation's 103 large nuclear power reactors from a Y2K compliance standard. Y2K readiness is the NRC's choice which allows for work-arounds and other short cuts. Testing of systems to show Y2K readiness is suggested, but not required. The agency goes further to assert that specific regulation for Y2K readiness is also not required.
At the heart of this move is the definition of safety. Although NRC is by law charged with providing "reasonable assurance of adequate public health and safety," when talking about nuclear reactors, they use the word 'safety' as a term of art. In this context NRC means specifically only the parts of the reactor that stop the nuclear chain reaction and put the reactor on stand-by. These systems are for the most part not computerized.
"The problem is that both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are cases of events that happened with the reactor on-line, not during shut down. Taking TMI off line did not stop the nuclear fuel from melting. Some systems that were installed in U.S. reactors after Three Mile Island to increase the margin of safety have been shown to be susceptible to Y2K malfunctions," said Mary Olson, NIRS Nuclear Y2K Project Coordinator. "Our petitions would have required that all systems "relevant to safety" be assessed, remediated, and tested to show Y2K compliance. Aren't these systems more important than an automated teller machine?"
These moves came via a mismanaged release of information over the past week (August 17- 23). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission officially denied NIRS petitions for the establishment of new regulations to specifically address nuclear safety in the context of Y2K-related computer failures submitted last December.
NRC also struck down any requirement for an industry-wide Y2K drill to build worker and management readiness to cope with challenges which the roll-over to 2000 might bring. A limited drill is being planned by NRC and a handful of utilities.
"Perhaps most disturbing is the official rejection of our call to increase back-up power reliability at the nation's nuclear sites. Nuclear reactors depend on another source of electricity to insure that vital monitoring and cooling systems operate. These systems are essential, even if the reactor is off-line. Our research shows that back-up diesel generators are just not as reliable as people have a right to expect, given that Y2K failures may cause local and regional power outages," said Paul Gunter, Director of the NIRS Nuclear Reactor Watch Dog Project. "Diesel generators have mechanical failures, fuel problems, are prone to overheating, and in some cases, vulnerable to the Y2K Bug itself!"
"John Koskinen, Head of the President's White House Council on Year 2000 Transition, has been telling state officials that they should assume an electrical outage of three weeks duration as part of their contingency planning. While Koskinen is not asserting that such an outage will occur, shouldn't the nation's nuclear reactor operators also take this as the baseline for their contingency planning?" Said Mary Olson, NIRS Nuclear Y2K Project Coordinator. "Loss of off-site power and loss of back-up power, also called Station Blackout, is the single largest contributor of risk to reactor operation, according to NRC. What makes January 1, 2000 unique is that every reactor system in the country, and indeed, the world will be challenged on the same day."
NRC's rejection of NIRS petition on back-up power states that only 7 day's supply of diesel fuel is required to be at each reactor site.
An NRC press release announcing their action was posted prior to effective notification of NIRS or publication in the Federal Register. Coincidence or calculation timed this long-coming official rejection during NIRS well-publicized Nuclear Free Great Lakes and Northeast Action Camps when all NIRS Program staff were away.
Text of the original NIRS petitions is posted on www.nirs.org and the NRC response is available at:
Citizens living near nuclear power stations around the world are mobilizing attention to these issues, forming the Y2K World Atomic Safety Holiday (WASH) Campaign. Leaders are reaching out to the 34 nations !QW! the world's 433 nuclear power reactors operate. A Y2K WASH presence will be in Berlin during the G-8 meeting on Y2K contingency planning on September 21. A forum sponsored by Y2K WASH and the Nobel Prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War will address Y2K challenges to both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons systems.
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