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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

West Scrambles to Ready Ukraine Reactors for Y2K

KIEV -- With less than five months to go before the year 2000, a project financed by Western governments has just got under way to try to fully immunize Ukraine's 14 aging, trouble-prone nuclear reactors against the Y2K computer problem.

The main goal of the project is to insure that no bugs crop up that could lead to power blackouts on New Year's Day, said Bob Talbert, an American nuclear power expert who is working on the project.

He said that he and other experts were already satisfied that the reactors' computers would not cause any safety problems and that the reactors would not automatically shut down at midnight on New Year's Eve.

In U.S. congressional hearings earlier this year, CIA officials said that the Y2K problem might prompt sudden shutdowns of nuclear reactors throughout Ukraine and Russia. That could have particularly devastating consequences in Ukraine, where nuclear power accounts for almost half of all electricity.

Although a nuclear accident was said to be unlikely, any mention of potential problems at Ukraine's nuclear reactors raises the specter of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986, which poisoned regions of Ukraine and Belarus and sprinkled radioactive dust across central and northern Europe.

An agreement is in the works under which the Group of Seven leading industrial nations would help Ukraine build new energy sources and Ukraine would shut down Chernobyl's last working reactor by Jan. 1. But until that deal is complete, Ukraine plans to keep the station chugging along.

Earlier this month, a French diplomat told Agence France-Presse that his embassy was advising French citizens who "do not absolutely need to be in Ukraine" to take a vacation in France for the four weeks around New Year's Day.

"It's almost certain that there will be panic buying of food and fuel," the embassy's first secretary, Jean-Fran?ois Devemy, was quoted as saying.

The French Embassy quickly issued a retraction, saying that Devemy had been misinterpreted and had spoken partly "in jest." The statement said there were "no grounds at the moment to issue any security advice whatsoever" to French citizens living in or planning to visit Ukraine.

The American and British embassies previously issued statements recommending that anyone planning to be in Ukraine around New Year's Day prepare for potential problems with distribution of power, water, fuel and food.

Talbert, the nuclear expert, said that stocking up on water, food and gas would be a reasonable precaution.

But another participant in the Y2K project, Valentin Ponomarenko, a private consultant, said he was concerned that Ukrainian officials do not fully appreciate the potential danger.

He said his greatest fear was that power station managers would choose to turn off faulty safety systems and keep electricity flowing rather than shut down reactors until the safety systems could be fixed.

Talbert said that all 14 "process computers," which are basically centralized record keepers that can aid after-the-fact analysis of reactor problems, were known to be vulnerable. Although the failure of a process computer poses no immediate safety risk, he said, operators would be legally obliged to shut down a reactor within hours after the process computer stopped working.

Ukraine has a record of ignoring its own nuclear safety regulations and overriding automatic safety systems. During the harsh Ukrainian winter, the national power grid often operates on the brink of collapse, and nuclear power station operators come under heavy pressure to keep electricity flowing.

Operators are tempted to take such risky measures because shutting down reactors would only make the grid more unstable, potentially starting a domino effect that could shut down all reactors and create a countrywide power failure in the dead of winter.