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Preventing a blackout

August 10, 2004

This week The Associated Press reported that a year after the biggest electrical blackout in the nation's history, the only standards for utility reliability are voluntary.

At a time when Americans are worried about possible terrorist attacks, there should be no further delay in starting work on a national set of standards.

A year ago this week, more than 10 million U.S. residents were left without power by a power outage that investigators found was caused by non-compliance with the voluntary rules.

Just last month the North American Electric Reliability Council, or NERC, an industry group that created the voluntary rules, released a report that concluded the "just trust us" approach was no longer enough.

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But a bill to begin the push for mandatory rules has been stalled because it's bundled up with a large-scale energy bill that covers issues like oil drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge and carbon-dioxide emissions. Untangling one from the other is probably impossible in the short term, unless there's some public pressure to do so.

There should be, because the interconnected nature of today's electric utilities means that local power supplies can be adversely affected by problems hundreds of miles away. Unless every utility gets with the program, all are at risk.

A year ago, there was speculation that terrorists were behind the blackout. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case. But if that situation were occur again, it's possible that terrorists could take advantage of it. In a free society where they have so many opportunities to do America harm, why give them another one?

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