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Which Electric System Do We Want?

One thing is certain about the power outage that affected 50 million people in seven states on Thursday: It shows how much the nation’s security, economy and basic services rely on electricity. This raises a question: Why we would risk turning over our electric system to those who seek only short-term profits? It is also a strong argument against the electricity provisions in federal energy legislation (H.R. 6) that would promote the kind of deregulation that also brought us the West Coast energy crisis. These flawed policies are destined to worsen the dangers of an overly centralized, profit-driven electric generation and distribution system.

By all expert accounts, there was plenty of power available at the time of the blackout, but something or someone overloaded the wires to move it to markets. Electric deregulation provides incentives for just such overloads, since generators must sell as much as possible to make profits. Electric deregulation also provides disincentives to make necessary repairs or additions to the transmission system or to employ adequate maintenance personnel, because these essential measures diminish profits.

Building and centralizing control over more high-voltage transmission lines will be expensive, especially if left to the “market.” This market is already demanding “incentives” for expanding the transmission grid. Such expansion benefits the generators by increasing their reach but leaves the rest of the country even more vulnerable to widespread power outages, whether caused by greed for profits, by terrorists, or simply by acts of God.

The call by Senate Republicans for greater reliance on nuclear power must also be seen in a new light following the massive loss of electricity, which required nine nuclear power reactors to shut down. Sudden reliance on backup diesel generators is less than reassuring, especially considering that there have been 15 instances in the past 12 months in which emergency generators have either malfunctioned or failed to operate at all, in certain cases leading to a plant shutdown; on several occasions all backup generators failed at once. One, Fermi, located uncomfortably close to Detroit, found all four of its backup generators simultaneously inoperable on February 1 of this year. While a plant can last between two and eight hours without backup generators before melting down, Detroit may go through the weekend before seeing full power returned, rendering the concept of such a blackout leading to a nuclear meltdown not at all beyond imagination or possibility.

And if this blackout had caused a meltdown or other severe accident, it appears that the emergency sirens in place to alert the proper officials and the public would not have operated due to a lack of power. In “event reports” submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday, both the Indian Point and Ginna nuclear stations (both in New York) noted that some of their emergency sirens would have been rendered impotent due to the blackout. In the case of Indian Point, four surrounding counties would have been left in a tragic state of ignorance in the event of a meltdown.

WENONAH HAUTER is director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

 

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