The End Of The World As We Know It?

The millennium bug could bite VCRs, ICBMs and more. Doomsayers say it's all in God's endgame

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The problem is that there is no clear agreement, even among sober experts, of how bad the Y2K computer problem will be. Mike McClure, who is in charge of making sure that Georgia's electric-power giant Southern Co. is Y2K compliant, has the attitude of a lot of the techno-savvy elite. In safeguarding his personal affairs, McClure says he will be "very diligent" in keeping bank and stock records for the months prior to January 2000. He will file away his 401(k) statements and buy plenty of candles and water and withdraw several weeks' worth of cash. "But," he says, "I don't plan to buy a portable power generator. I don't think we're going to need it."

To the extent that there is some consensus among sensible experts, it is that the dire predictions of major social disruptions are way overblown. The most likely problems involve temporary glitches, especially overseas, in billing and invoice systems, that could cause some disruptions in business and government. The Internal Revenue Service, you will be relieved to know, promises to be prepared. (So it's true about death and taxes.) And the Social Security Administration, which sends out benefit checks, also says it's ready for 2000.

But that office began to comb through its computers in the 1980s. Not many agencies or businesses got that long a head start. So no one really knows how bad things will get until the witching hour arrives. The Pentagon insists that 95% of its "mission critical" computers will be fixed by June and all of them before Dec. 31. But nuclear weapons systems in all nations--including Russia, where the state of Y2K preparations is anybody's guess--are computer dependent. In November the British American Security Information Council, a nuclear disarmament group, warned that a Y2K glitch could lead to erroneous early-warning reports or even trigger the accidental launch of a nuclear missile. Nuclear power plants could be vulnerable to the same difficulties. Last year, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission looked at the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, it found that Y2K problems, unless fixed, would affect the computers that monitored such crucial functions as reactor-coolant levels and fuel-handling systems.

"Nothing should be taken at face value when it comes to government assurances," warns Dr. Mark Neuenschwander. He and his wife Betsy, also a physician, head the AD2000 Crisis Relief Task Force, a conservative Christian humanitarian effort based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Because of what he expects to be potential problems in anesthesia machines, intravenous pumps and ICU monitors--like many complex devices, they contain tiny "embedded" computer chips--he warns against elective surgery in the first six months of 2000. "Health care will be the least prepared."

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