Arthur C. Clarke
Y2K and Nuclear Weapons
Arthur C. Clarke
Y2K and Nuclear Weapons
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by Lenny Siegel
One critical year-2000 issue that has not yet been adequately addressed is the risk of large accidental releases of toxic or even lethal chemicals. As many as 85 million Americans live close enough to chemical, petroleum, and other facilities where there is a risk of death or acute injury from a chemical release. Those plants, like most other modern industrial operations, are vulnerable to the Y2K bug. Fearing the economic loss and/or liability of shutdown, many of the companies that own and run those facilities are working to identify and correct Y2K-dependent software and hardware. At least at those firms that are addressing the problem, the chance of a catastrophic breakdown is low.
But it is not zero. And many businesses--particularly the smaller, financially strapped, and less sophisticated ones--are making little, if any progress. A large, unknown number of embedded chips and software that control chemical systems throughout the United States--in fact the world--are Y2K dependent and probably noncompliant. Even if system owners redouble their efforts to identify those points of weakness and render them compliant, there remains a real chance that both industrial processes and safety backup systems will fail. We don't know where the leaks or explosions will occur, but the chance is real that vast numbers of workers and plant neighbors will be killed or injured unless contingency plans are made.
Particularly since Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India released deadly chemicals into adjacent communities, residents and emergency responders near U.S. chemical facilities have demanded that they play a role in preparing for the worst. They have a right to know the risks. They must have the opportunity to develop or influence contingency plans.
In some areas, such as Richmond, California--site of numerous toxic refinery releases--emergency warning systems have been established. In Silicon Valley, where I live, municipalities, led by their fire departments, have enacted strict controls on the storage of toxic gases at chipmaking and other factories. To be prepared for Y2K toxic releases, communities need to know which chemicals each facility stores, and how the containment of those substances depends upon the uninterrupted operation of computer systems and embedded chips. Though there are laws and regulations on the books that require some disclosure, they are insufficient. Given the slow pace of the regulatory process, there is scant chance that new rules will be promulgated anywhere in time to provide the public with the information it needs.
Nothing, however, prevents companies that handle deadly chemicals from voluntarily reporting their vulnerabilities to the public, as well as the steps they are taking to manage those risks. Some producers may hesitate, for fear of whipping up more Y2K paranoia. However, I think fear will escalate even more as "midnight" approaches if people remain uninformed. The first step, therefore, for residents of threatened communities, is to ask, even demand, that toxic chemical handlers come clean. Public interest experts, such as members of CPSR, can help guide communities in their inquiries. What kinds of systems are likely to break down? Which ones can be identified and tested before the witching hour arrives?
The next step, logically, is for communities, their emergency response agencies, and chemical handlers to prepare for system breakdown. Operational contingency plans, based upon enhanced monitoring during the Y2K transition period, should establish mechanisms to override malfunctioning systems, contain remaining problems, and warn and protect the public. Evacuation, if necessary, will require extra preparation at a time when other services and infrastructure--power, transportation, and communications--are also at risk of failure.
Third, there are probably many situations in which the risk of catastrophic breakdown on January 1, 2000 justifies the preemptive shutdown of industrial processes. Companies often close down for New Years to save money. They should be able to scale back operations to prevent catastrophe. Then, when the Y2K dust and confetti have settled, that is, when the state of infrastructure, emergency response agencies, and social order are better known, these companies can start up again. Communities unconvinced that protective measures are adequate should demand preemptive protection.
Open preparation will do more than reduce the risk of toxic disasters. It will diminish the likelihood of social breakdown. I recall the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Shelter." In that story, warning of a nuclear attack drove a family into its personal, privately constructed bomb/fallout shelter. The entire fabric of the immediate neighborhood disintegrated as neighbors demanded entry to the shelter. In our case, an organized, encompassing collective response that provides protection for all will weaken the appeal of competitive survivalism.
There is no longer time to prevent all potential Y2K system breakdowns, but there is time to get ready for them. Public interest groups, emergency responders, and environmental organizations, hopefully backed by state agencies, the federal government, and private foundations, can mobilize to demand the right to know about, prepare for, and prevent toxic Y2K catastrophes. CPSR can help organizers not only to understand the nature and extent of the problem, but to identify those systems whose risk of catastrophe is greatest.
Lenny Siegel is the Director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight at San Francisco State University and a member of CPSR.
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