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REVIEW & OUTLOOK

Power Ties
The lights didn't have to go out.

Friday, August 15, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT

The fragility of modern economic life was demonstrated again yesterday afternoon with the power blackout that struck most of the American Northeast and parts of Canada. Tens of thousands were trapped in elevators, buildings or subways, while millions had to negotiate a long, difficult commute home from the office. Airports and nuclear power plants closed.

Everyone who recalls September 11 immediately thought of terrorism, and we can all be thankful it wasn't the cause. But it's somehow not reassuring to hear government officials refer to the event the way New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did as a "natural occurrence." Natural is what happens in nature, like a tornado, but a national power grid is a man-made operation.

The breadth of the energy disruption suggests that some major rethinking deserves to be done about the vulnerability of America's power grid. If an accident can shut down an entire U.S. region for half a day, imagine what well-planned sabotage could do. The U.S. has grown complacent as the memory of California's blackouts in 2000 has faded. But especially in the Northeast, the U.S. is still operating on an energy supply and with a load-sharing grid that has very little room for error.

Our political class has once more turned back to attacking those power plants we do have, especially nuclear plants, rather than thinking creatively about ensuring the kind of redundant power delivery that can avoid blackouts. Yesterday's disruption was both inconvenient and costly, but it will be cheap at the price if it awakens our politicians to act before a larger power shortage strikes.

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