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1998-02-20 09:43:42


BUSINESS WEEK Admits: The Experts Aren't Sure



BUSINESS WEEK (March 3) ran a story on the Year 2000 Problem. It was comprehensive. It was mild-mannered by my standards, but hard core by conventional media standards of 1996 and 1997.

The article discussed the possibility that electrical power generation may be at risk. What is significant is the quote from an official with EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, the U.S. power industry's "think tank." The expert says the industry doesn't know if power is at risk.

This is THE problem. It is the greatest problem that has ever faced Western civilization, other than nuclear war. If the power grid goes down and stays down, Western civilization will go down and stay down. Yet the power company experts just don't know. They aren't sure.

This civilization may be hanging on a thread, but the experts who are supposed to know don't know.

For saying this publicly, I've been dismissed as a doomsayer. Well, now BUSINESS WEEK has said it, even though it guards its rhetoric. What BUSINESS WEEK has done is very quietly raise the possibility of the end of civilization in the context of a strory that discusses a possible reduction of economic growth by half a point. The editors will not be accused of fostering panic.

The month that electrical power goes off, there will be a whole lot of panic.

Do I take this threat seriously? Very. I now live on a property with its own private natural gas well. I have three 10 kw natural gas generators in reserve. How seriously do you take it?

* * * * * * *

Consider a household analogy. If you have to change one lightbulb or one electric switch in your house, there's no problem. But if you have to replace the lightbulbs and electric switches in everything you own, including your refrigerator, your car dashboard, and your furnace, it becomes a very time-consuming and expensive process.

Indeed, what makes Year 2000 particularly vexing is that it affects both stand-alone computers and the embedded processors built into all sorts of modern equipment, from automated factory equipment to power plants to cars to cellular telephones. Last fall, Phillips Petroleum Co. engineers ran Year 2000 tests on an oil-and-gas production platform in the North Sea. The result: In a simulation, an essential safety system for detecting harmful gases such as hydrogen sulfide got confused and shut down. In real life, that would have rendered the platform unusable. Similar problems can occur in almost any sort of modern manufacturing that involves sensors and ''smart'' machinery. ''There will be facilities where they go in and turn on the machines and they won't go on,'' says Dean Kothmann, head of the technology division at engineering firm Black & Veatch, the world's largest provider of power plants.

In particular, electric utilities are only now becoming aware that programmable controllers--which have replaced mechanical relays in virtually all electricity-generating plants and control rooms--may behave badly or even freeze up when 2000 arrives. Many utilities are just getting a handle on the problem. ''It's probably six months too soon for anyone to try to guess the complete extent of the problem,'' says Charlie Siebenthal, manager of the Year 2000 program at the Electric Power Research Institute, the industry group that serves as an information clearinghouse. ''We don't know'' if electricity flow will be affected, he said.

Nuclear power plants, of course, pose an especially worrisome problem. While their basic safety systems should continue to work, other important systems could malfunction because of the 2000 bug. In one Year 2000 test, notes Jared S. Wermiel, who is leading the millennium bug effort at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the security computer at a nuclear power plant failed by opening vital areas that are normally locked. For that reason, the NRC is in the process of issuing a letter requesting confirmation from utilities that their plants will operate safely come Jan. 1, 2000. Given the complexity and the need to test, ''it wouldn't surprise me if certain plants find that they are not Year 2000-ready and have to shut down,'' says Wermeil.


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