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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Y2K Bug Still Keeps Everyone Guessing




Russia started late, hasn't done enough, and won't get it done before New Year's Day, so it seems that the world's largest country is going to discover how serious a problem Y2K can be.


Russia is so immense - it has 11 time zones - that the first anxiously awaited moments of 2000 will take almost a half-day to roll across the country.


It probably won't mean planes falling out of the sky or trains running backward, and almost no one expects a glitch to cause the launching of nuclear missiles. But beyond that, opinion runs pretty well across the spectrum.


Fears are that the electric power grid could fail, which would also mean a lack of heat in affected cities. Telecommunications could be a big headache. Banks could experience disruptions, and natural gas supplies and municipal water could be cut off. Problems could be immediate, or take days or weeks to emerge.


The ballistic missile force is an exception. U.S. and Russian defense spokesmen say their systems have been updated, and a joint monitoring center is being set up in Colorado so that each side can stand watch as the clock ticks toward midnight. That would mean from midnight in the Russian Far East, 10 hours ahead of Moscow, all the way around the globe to midnight in Alaska, 23 hours later.


But the big question is the nuclear power plants. Is Eastern Europe looking at another Chernobyl or two?


The answer is that no one really knows because no one has ever been through something like this.


But the odds-on assessment among Russian and Western experts is a resounding "probably not'' - that is, assuming that work to fix the problem continues through November and December, that backup generators at all 29 nuclear plants are able to provide power for cooling the nuclear material if normal electric service should fail, and that someone remembers to make sure those generators have plenty of fuel on hand.


Given all that, the nuclear plants should remain safe, and Russia can expect nothing worse than blackouts, freezing cities and an inability to communicate. Even there, it's going to be a matter of degree.


"Any problems will be short-term,'' Alexander Volokitin, in charge of a government Y2K commission, said in an interview last week. "We are moving in an optimal direction.''


The CIA, on the other hand, has put Russia in the forefront of countries looking at Y2K trouble.


Lawrence Gershwin, the CIA's national intelligence officer for science and technology, told a U.S. Senate hearing earlier this month that Russia is one of four seriously vulnerable countries.


One of the others he mentioned was Ukraine - and problems in Russia and Ukraine could be mutually exacerbating because of the way their electric grids are connected.


Western experts in Moscow point out that the Ukrainian power system is strained to the verge of collapse. If trouble should develop, Russia is reportedly prepared to save itself by cutting off its southern neighbor, which is far behind in its payments for electricity. Last year Ukraine bought $84.4 million worth of electricity from Moscow and paid just $10.1 million.


Anatoly Chubais, head of Russia's electric power company UES, is optimistic that if any problems arise, they can be contained, and U.S. diplomats tend to agree.


"We do not foresee severe, long-term disruptions,'' John Beyrle, a U.S. State Department official, said in congressional testimony last month. "It appears that Moscow and the other cities might emerge relatively unscathed.''


Russia has the advantage of not being highly computerized. What worries Volokitin and others is that factories and systems have added computer components from the West since the fall of communism, and it's not clear what happens to an essentially jury-rigged system if an obscure chip that no one knew about starts spewing out bad information, or proves unable to close a valve. For some reason flour mills are said to be particularly unprepared.


Between now and the end of the year, it will be impossible for technicians to check every computer. Volokitin calculates that right now the country is at about a 50 percent state of readiness. The Cabinet is to meet Thursday to discuss the response and consider ministry requests for about $80 million to buy additional equipment and do further work.