Lack of preparation leaves Y2K's effect on Russia an enigma

Biggest question mark: nuclear power plants

October 17, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- 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. The 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.

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

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

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.

`Optimal direction'

"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 Central Intelligence Agency, 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 Senate hearing last week 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, 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 State Department official, said in congressional testimony last month. "It appears that Moscow and the other cities might emerge relatively unscathed."

Classic predicament

At times the Y2K problem -- which is expected to arise in computers that won't be able to distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900 -- seems like a classic Russian predicament. It's a "this could happen or that could happen" kind of story, with nothing very clear and one doomsday scenario spinning out from another.

Russia was slow to react to the threat. With the exception of the gas company and the railroads, almost every other ministry and enterprise gave little heed to the issue.

"In the end, we managed to turn all of them to face the problem," said Volokitin. The most intractable turned out to be the Defense Ministry, where a large body of thought considered Y2K to be some kind of clever Trojan horse dreamed up by the Americans.

"We had to overcome a lack of understanding," Volokitin said.

An exception

The ballistic missile force was 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.

Now there's a mad dash to get things done.

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.

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