Americans are alerted to Y2K woes abroad

Many countries face serious disruptions, State Department says

September 15, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With as much diplomatic delicacy as it could muster, the U.S. government advised traveling Americans yesterday that dozens of countries might not fix year 2000 computer problems in time to prevent major disruptions around Jan. 1.

In its first country-by-country assessment of the "Y2K bug," the State Department said many nations are likely to suffer disruptions in energy systems, communications, health care and shipping. No foreign country is free of Y2K risk, it said.

The reports range from cautiously optimistic for developed countries such as Japan and France to gloomy but hopeful for Russia and other states from the former Soviet Union.

In Russia, "Y2K disruptions are likely to occur in the key sectors of electrical power, heat, telecommunications, transportation and financial and emergency services," the State Department said. Russia "appears to be somewhat prepared to deal with the Y2K problem."

That's a better prospect than that of Ukraine, which "appears to be unprepared," the department said. "It appears that there may be risk of potential disruption in all key sectors, especially energy and electric services."

Ukraine is particularly worrisome because of its aging, Soviet-designed nuclear reactors, including a unit still functioning at Chernobyl.

The U.S. Energy Department has been working with utilities in Ukraine and other countries to try to head off Y2K reactor trouble. The concern is that New Year's computer glitches might disable a reactor's safety systems and prompt a radiation release or other problem.

Spokesmen for the Ukrainian and Russian embassies in Washington said they wanted to study the State Department bulletins before commenting on them.

Yesterday's reports, posted on the State Department's Internet site, are part of general travel advisories that are routinely updated by the government. But there was nothing routine about the Y2K advice, which U.S. diplomats worried might ruffle the feathers of countries deemed unprepared.

In a news briefing yesterday, top State Department officials spoke for more than 30 minutes about worldwide Year 2000 concerns without mentioning the name of a nation in danger of problems. Instead, officials diplomatically referred people to their Internet site: http: //travel.state.gov.

"We haven't done an analysis of who's higher, who's lower" for Y2K concerns, said Kevin Herbert, head of the department's overseas citizens services. "I think if you read these, you'll see each one describes a situation in that country. There's no rating."

The Y2K problem is almost everywhere. Because many computers use only two digits to express a year, they could interpret "00" as 1900 as of Jan. 1. That could cause problems, engineers believe, and might disrupt electrical systems, train networks, telephone operations and other utilities.

Previously, the U.S. government had said that the risk of Y2K-related failures in energy, communications and transportation was medium to high in about half of the world's countries.

The State Department's analysis is most optimistic for developed Western nations and Japan.

France "has made progress on remediating Y2K problems" and has "a low risk of potential Y2K disruptions in key sectors," the department said, and Japan "has moved rapidly on Y2K remediation" and faces little danger of widespread problems.

Japan's health-care sector is behind on compliance, the report said, and U.S. citizens in Japan should be alert to potential difficulties in other areas, too.

In some countries, Y2K risk will depend on location and who is being dealt with.

China's major coastal cities "are generally well prepared," but outside these areas, "there may be a risk of potential disruption in electrical power and infrastructure systems," the report said.

Brazil "appears to be generally prepared," but local governments and small and medium-sized businesses are lagging, the department said.

The department promises to update its warnings as the new year draws closer.

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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