Monday, August 18, 2003

The blackout:

  1. Bush said on Thursday: "The one thing I can say for certain, this was not a terrorist act." At that time, there was no Official Story as to what caused the blackout, and in fact the facts are still in dispute. How, then, could Bush be certain that it was not a terrorist act? Isn't it odd how quickly the Bush Administration knew all the facts about who was supposed to be behind 9-11, and how quickly Bush could confirm that the blackout wasn't caused by terrorists? The speed of Bush's omniscience is frightening.

  2. The system is designed to isolate any problem to the area where the problem occurred. In this case, the Official Story seems to be that the system didn't work as designed, and the initial problem was allowed to infect adjacent areas, with those adjacent areas then affecting further areas, and so on (the problem spread like an epidemic, and is perhaps best understood in the terms of epidemiology). Not only did the Ohio system break down, but the same system of automatically isolating problems, which existed in each geographically separate part of the whole system, failed in every single possible instance. Michehl R. Gent, President and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Council, a private standards-setting organization that oversees the transmission system, and which had been formed specifically to prevent cascading blackouts, said: "The system has been designed and rules have been created to prevent this escalation and cascading. It should have stopped, we think, after the first three" line failures. The problem with the Official Story is that not only had there to be a screw up in Ohio, but the same screw up in Michigan, Ontario, New York State, and so on. At every step when the problem could have been contained, it was not. The completeness of the failure, and the impossible coincidence that the exact same type of failure had to reoccur in so many places, makes the Official Story suspect.

  3. I don't believe that part of the Official Story that nobody had any clue what happened until late on Friday, when the story seemed to be firming up that the problem began in the area of Cleveland. Somewhere, and probably in a number of places, there must be real time monitoring of all power flows and surges, which should have revealed the origins of the problem immediately. In fact, the coincidence required by the Official Story, that the same extraordinary failure had to occur in different places, is so difficult to believe that one is forced into seeing the whole problem as one occurring in some central control facility, and that same facility would be where you would expect to find monitoring of the whole system.

  4. In the two hours before the blackout, there the Official Story is that there was a series of problems in transmission lines in Ohio. Voltages sagged too low at a number of times. The last two drops in voltage didn't correct themselves. There was initially some thought that the line problem was caused by tree contact, but the lines appear to be undamaged and that sort of problem occurs so often that it is extremely unlikely to have resulted in the massive blackout. One of the lines may, however, have overheated and sagged, thus hitting a tree (another story is that a tree fell on a line). This is all very interesting, but of course in no way explains what happened. It may very well be that the problems with power lines were a symptom, rather than a cause, of the problem, particularly as FirstEnergy Corp. is now reporting that there were unusual energy flows well before there was a problem with the lines. Since the problem was of a type which would have occurred in a matter of seconds, it cannot be blamed on human error, as the shut-off mechanism must have been set up to work automatically (claiming that the operators did not notice the problem quickly enough won't suffice as an excuse, as this type of thing happens so quickly that human intervention could not possibly have helped). Of course, human error may be responsible for failing to notice earlier warning signs or failure to take any steps to prevent the problem from starting once the warning signals occurred.

  5. Due to criminally incompetent planning by Ontario politicians and electricity bureaucrats, Ontario is in a deficit position with respect to electrical power, and was drawing power on the line from Michigan (for weird Canadian political reasons, Quebec, which produces massive quantities of hydroelectric power and sends most of it to the United States, provides hardly any power to Ontario). The Official Story was that the power flow, which was headed towards Ontario, suddenly reversed direction and surged back to Ohio. Although this has not been fully explained (except for the insufficient explanation of the power line and the tree), presumably the surge occurred because Ohio suddenly found itself in a power deficit, probably because a local source suddenly stopped producing.

  6. The initial accounts that the problem began in Canada, particularly by Mayor Bloomberg, probably derive from the fact that energy is often routed through Ontario. The breakdown of the Canadian system, probably caused by a breakdown in the transmission of energy into Ontario at Detroit, then would cause Ontario to be unable to send the energy back down to New York by sending it across the border in the Niagara area. From a New York City perspective, it appears that the problem derives from Canada. The line between Michigan and Ontario has not been hooked up again, with the claim that this is "due to operational security reasons", but I suspect it is because Ontario power bureaucrats still aren't confident in being hooked up to the same problem, particularly as its origin is still shrouded in mystery.

  7. After blaming Canada, New York state officials said they thought the problem originated at the Perry Nuclear Power Plant near Cleveland. This is denied by the plant on the rather odd basis that there were several transmission lines in Michigan that had tripped out of service first, which of course begs the question as to why this happened in Michigan and whether it was caused by something that happened in Ohio.

  8. The Perry plant, and at least two of the lines that are said to have been involved in the problem, are owned by FirstEnergy Corp. (FirstEnergy Corp. also owns the extremely troubled, and troubling, Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo). FirstEnergy Corp. is a very large political donor to George Bush, and that fact may have something to do with the information blackout which accompanied the power blackout, perhaps providing time to craft the Official Story. Financial difficulties caused by Davis-Besse may mean that another problem may have required hiding.

  9. The whole series of official Canadian explanations is, to the say the least, very odd. The Prime Minister's office initially said that the problem originated in the Niagara Mohawk power grid in upstate New York, and was caused by a lightning strike on a power plant. Then they said it was caused by a fire at a power plant in that area. No one knows where these ideas came from, as there was no lightning in the area at the time, and apparently no fire. John McCallum, Canadian Minister of Defence, said at a press conference that he understood that the problem originated at a fire at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. He said he was aware of earlier erroneous Canadian reports, but had learned the latest information from his U. S. counterparts about 10 minutes before the conference. He said:

    "We're going by the latest information we have received from our U. S. counterparts. We are told this as a fact."

    He specified a fire at a nuclear power plant, and said he believed the plant to be in Pennsylvania. He indicated that his information had just come in from U. S. military officials. Part way through the press conference he was interrupted by his press secretary, and corrected himself to say that it was an incident at a nuclear plant, and not a fire. It is as if someone in the Canadian or American military monitoring the conference stepped in to ensure that the record was corrected. It is very difficult to dismiss the whole McCallum press conference, as apparently has been done by everyone, some making the comment that McCallum is a drunk (which is true, but probably irrelevant!). McCallum is a very smart man (a former chief economist of a large Canadian bank and the Dean of Arts at McGill University), seemed very confident of his American military sources, and was specific enough in his version of the cause and his source of the information that it seems unlikely to be a mistake. As well, Thoren Hudyma, a senior spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa, said:

    "It was caused by a power outage at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania."

    However, Pennsylvania officials vehemently deny that there was any such problem at any Pennsylvania nuclear plant. Since McCallum was vague about Pennsylvania, we should look for a likely nuclear plant near Pennsylvania. My first thought was the troubled Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey, but it appears that it was shut down in an orderly fashion as a result of the blackout, and was not a potential cause. If you look west, however, quite close to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border is the Perry Nuclear Power Plant, which is quite near Cleveland and about 65 miles west of Erie, Pennsylvania. Could McCallum have been referring to this plant when he referred to a plant which he thought was in Pennsylvania? This plant appears to be under particular protection against terrorist attack. It is also one of the first causes mentioned by New York State officials after they got over blaming Canada, and is owned by FirstEnergy Corp.

  10. The bomb incident in Florida is an interesting parallel. In that case, a soldier from Fort Stewart, Georgia was arrested in May 2002 at a power plant in Jacksonville, Florida (not a nuclear plant, as there is no nuclear plant in Jacksonville), and held on charges of attempting to discharge a destructive device. In the light of 9-11, this caused some consternation. He claimed he was in the area to "practice recon tactics." He pled no contest and will receive 18 months probation. You have to wonder if the puny sentence reflects the fact that he was on (semi-)official business. The Army seems rather nonchalant about the whole thing.

Some thoughts:

  1. Was the whole system intentionally shut down?

  2. Did something really bad happen at the Perry Nuclear Power Plant? Was there a terrorist attack, or a threat of one? Was it necessary to find some sort of excuse to shut down all nuclear power plants in the northeast?

  3. Bush and Cheney are keen to allow the construction of a whole new series of nuclear power plants. Any huge safety threat would bring back images of Three Mile Island, and scuttle their plans to enrich their greasy friends. Was the blackout a way of disguising some safety threat at a nuclear power plant?

  4. Is there a central control facility where all problems can be monitored, and where the whole system can be shut down if necessary? Given the current American paranoia about terrorism, I'd be surprised if such a facility didn't exist, and even more surprised if it wasn't somehow connected with the Homeland Security bureaucracy.

  5. The combination of privatization and deregulation of essential government services, including such things as power, roads, health care, and security, is so utterly and obviously stupid that it is not worth while even writing about it. Sadly, the existing neocon orthodoxy, backed up by autistic economic theory, will no doubt lead to more of the same corporate corruption which has recently so greatly reduced the quality of life for the majority of the population. I fully imagine that we'll start to see articles pointing out that the problem was caused by insufficient privatization and deregulation. Visionary civil servants like Robert Moses and Adam Beck, whose plans for government production of inexpensive hydroelectric power led to the prosperity enjoyed in New York and Ontario respectively, must be spinning in their graves.

  6. Is the whole story of the source of the problem, involving power lines in Ohio and power surges, just an elaborate construct of misinformation intended to hide some awful truth?

Looking over the internet, I am quite surprised at the lack of crazed conspiracy theories concerning the blackout. Are we actually starting to believe all the lies that we are being told, no matter how implausible they may be? The Official Story, which involves unlikely Bushian omniscience about terrorism, implausible official inability to immediately pinpoint the problem, the Canadian Minister of Defence spouting oddly specific nonsense, and simultaneous multinational failures of a system across widely-spaced geographical areas, is difficult to believe.