The Nando Times - Eastern Europe worried about its power grids

By ANCA PADURARU

BUCHAREST (December 19, 1999) - The official line in much of Eastern Europe goes like this: Computers aren't used in this region as much as in the highly automated West, so the Y2K problem is less of a concern.

True, many computers in former East bloc nations are late-generation, increasing the chances that they are bug-free. And much government record-keeping is still manual, like Romania's Social Security records.

"I am not worried; things are under control," says Iuliu Bara, the Romanian government's Y2K coordinator.

But older computer systems that are most vulnerable to the millennium bug do exist, and often they control sectors like energy - which in Romania harbors the greatest pottential for failure.

Y2K analysts and Western governments are worried about the power grids of Romania and other Eastern European nations from the Baltic states to the Balkans. Because the region's power grids are interconnected, failures in one country could trigger a temporary collapse of a neighbor's network.

Aging Soviet-era nuclear power plants provide much energy to these countries. And while experts are reasonably certain Y2K-triggered failures at such plants would not lead to meltdowns or radiation releases, there is concern about widespread blackouts.

Adding to the uncertainty is the state of things Russia. Many of these countries get the bulk of their oil and gas from that vast eastern neighbor, whose ability to deliver fuel is in question because of poor Y2K readiness.

Many Romanians are anxious.

"What might happen is so terrible that not even during the World War II did Romania experience such a thing," offers 79-year-old retiree Elena Ionidi, who lives alone in a 10th-floor apartment.

If power fails, Ionidi's elevator wouldn't work and the electric pumps that lift water to her apartment would halt.

Officially, Romania's national electricity company Conel says it held readiness tests, but company sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press no such tests have occurred.

In many former Soviet bloc nations, old government secrecy habits die hard. With less transparency on Y2K readiness, crossing fingers and hoping for the best is often the rule of thumb.

"We don't actually know the extent of the possible damage because anything can happen - from nothing to a major disaster," said Dan Georgescu, an information technology official at Bucharest's water company.

While declining to specify areas of concern, the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest has advised Americans there to be prepared to "tough it out" a few days if the power goes out and recommended they have a full tank of gas and extra batteries, candles and cash.

Worried about disruptions in electricity and natural gas deliveries, Bulgaria's government declared Jan. 3 a holiday and the smaller of the nation's two oil refineries said it would suspend operations during the New Year's rollover.

In Estonia, the power company recently conducted tests that separated parts of its electrical grid from a regional network that includes Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus.

"We're just operating on the assumption Russia will have trouble," said the company's Y2K project manager, Toomas Tutt.

Fearing blackouts, Hungary's hospitals will perform only emergency surgery over New Year's and send ambulatory patients home, the country's hospital association director was quoted as saying.

In Poland, the state railway director, Tadeusz Sawa, rated just 14 of the 33 local power companies well-prepared for Y2K. All trains in Poland will halt, possibly for as long as 45 minutes, shortly before midnight Dec. 31.

Energy is not the region's only worry. Government records and health care systems in many countries are not fully Y2K-compliant.

Officials in Moldova expect power outages and anticipate failures in the railway network and police department. In Slovakia, work remains unfinished on purging life-sustaining medical devices of the Y2K bug. Officials say some patients may have to be transferred from less-prepared hospitals.

To be on the safe side, Hungary is closing its banks from Dec. 30 to Jan. 3; Romania from New Year's Eve through Jan. 3. Poland's banks will be closed Dec. 31 so employees can print out all balances before midnight.

Many Eastern Europe officials boast that they have a Y2K advantage because so many of their computers are relatively new and thus bug-free.

Not necessarily true, says Y2K researcher Andrea Di Maio of the Gartner Group.

"It's been found that 47 percent of 1998 PCs weren't Y2K-compliant," he said. "If there are people who believe they don't have a problem because they have new computers, they could be in trouble."

http://www.nandotimes.com/noframes/story/0,2107,500144457-500172846-500665620-0,00.html

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]