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The Accidental Armageddon




The Y2K bug could trigger a nuclear holocaust. So what are
the experts doing? Hoping for the best....

MANY of the world's chemical plants, nuclear reactors and
nuclear-weapon systems rely heavily on date-related
computer systems. So what will happen to them come the
millennium bug?

It is remarkable that the Pentagon, the United States Defence
headquarters, computerised its nuclear weapons, delivery
systems and early-warning systems, despite knowing there
was a date-related problem. And it beggars comprehension
that the nuclear power industry made the same mistake.

There are 433 non-military nuclear power reactors in the
world, 103 of them in the US. All depend on an intact
coolant system. In most reactors, integral components of
the cooling system are computerised. So if any
date-dependent fixture breaks down, the reactor could melt
down within minutes.

How to deal with this? Even if the reactor is taken ``off line''
- that is, the fissioning process is stopped on 31 December
and the cooling system fails on 1 January - it will still melt
down within two hours. Indeed, even if the fission reaction
were to be stopped today, the core would still be so hot in
six months that it would melt down within 12 hours if the
coolant system failed.

But there's more. The circulation of coolant water is also
dependent on an external electricity supply and an intact
telecommunications system. If the millennium bug causes
power failures and/or telecommunication malfunctions,
reactors will be vulnerable. Because of this possibility, each
US reactor has been equipped with two back-up diesel
generators. But at best these are only 85 per cent reliable.
So, in the event of a prolonged power failure, the back-up
diesel generators will not necessarily prevent a nuclear
catastrophe. And 67 Russian-built reactors are even more
vulnerable, because they have no back-up generators.

What is more, the Russian electricity grid is itself at great
risk because, as one might expect, the political and
economic turmoil in that country means the Y2K problem
has hardly been examined. There are 70 old nuclear reactors
on old Russian submarines moored at dock in the Barents
Sea. If they were to lose the electricity grid powering their
cooling systems, they would melt.

About 80 per cent of France's electricity is nuclear
generated. Its government has announced it will close its
nuclear power plants for four days over the New Year. But
this will not stop meltdowns if the external electricity supply
is lost and the coolant fails to reach the intensely hot
radioactive cores.

Because the air masses of the two hemispheres do not
generally mix at the equator, Australia is likely to be largely
protected from the fallout from any catastrophic radioactive
accidents in the northern hemisphere, where most reactors
are located.

But Russia and America maintain an arsenal of up to 3000
nuclear warheads, targeted at each other and their allies.
These weapons are on hair-trigger alert, meaning only
minutes are allowed for either side to determine whether an
apparent attack is the result of a computer error. And
Australia is home to several of the Russian targets, among
them Pine Gap, Nurrunga, North West Cape and Tidbinbilla.
In the event of a nuclear war - accidental or deliberate - they
could expect to be on the receiving end of at least one
hydrogen bomb each.

The Pentagon, which maintains more computer systems
than any other organisation in the world, is in disarray about
Y2K. The Pentagon admits that it is physically impossible to
locate all the embedded microchips within the systems. And
even if a system is deemed Y2K compliant, each system
interfaces with others, so that a faulty embedded chip or
hardware problem in one system can infect another that is
deemed Y2K compliant, and ``bring it down''.

The US Deputy Secretary of Defence, John Hamre, was
quoted in October last year as saying: ``Probably one out of
five days I wake up in a cold sweat thinking (that the Y2K
problem) is much bigger than we think, and then the other
four days I think maybe we are on top of it. Everything is so
interconnected; it's very hard to know with any precision
that we have got it fixed.''

It has been well documented that the Pentagon's
early-warning computers experience more than 100
significant errors each year. And on the Russian side, in one
well-reported 1995 incident, their computers detected
telemetry from a US missile that was launching a Norwegian
weather satellite. Thinking the Americans had initiated a
nuclear war, the Russians, for the first time, actually opened
the nuclear ``football'', the computer used to launch a
nuclear attack. For some minutes, President Boris Yeltsin
contemplated pressing the button. Only when the missile
veered off target did the Russians realise that they were not
under attack.

America's early-warning system could also be at risk
because of the millennium bug. False messages could be
received because of computer malfunction in the infra-red
satellites used to detect missile launches; in the ``over the
horizon'' radar system that monitors missile flight; or in the
overall C3I (Command, Control, Communications and
Intelligence) System set up to detect Russian missile

Russia appears not to have taken seriously the Y2K problem
as it relates to its nuclear arsenal. And nor has the US
devoted much time to helping the Russians. High-level talks
were conducted, before the Kosovo war on establishing a
joint early-warning room so that Russia and America could
reassure each other in the event of accidents or computer
failures. But once NATO bombs began dropping, the
Russians backed away.

So the picture is potentially grim. Can anything be done?

Every nuclear reactor should be fitted urgently with back-up
alternative electricity sources, such as solar or wind power.
This is not an impossible task, and it could be achieved if the
US showed the same level of commitment as it has displayed
in the Kosovo crisis.

As for nuclear weapons, the arsenals of France, England,
Israel, India, Pakistan and China are not on hair-trigger alert.
But all strategic weapons in Russia and America should be
decoupled within the next six months - that is, the weapons
should be removed from their missiles. Also, the bombs
themselves must be de-alerted.

But perhaps the biggest threat is worldwide apathy. The
truth is that we have less than seven months to deactivate
these deadly arsenals before the clock strikes midnight. And
we won't meet that deadline unless the international
community, including Australia, demands that it be done.


Dr Helen Caldicott is secretary of the Our Common Future
party, and founding president of Physicians for Social