Homemade firecrackers trump Y2K bug in millennium rollover

Pam Boschee

News Editor

Forget about the Y2K bug-“homemade firecrackers in a plastic bucket that went off” at the base of a transmission tower briefly blinked the lights just before midnight on New Year`s Eve in 4,000 homes served by Commonwealth Edison (ComEd). Ironically, malicious, Neanderthal-like high jinks replaced high-tech mayhem in causing year 2000 rollover power disruption.

That ComEd`s brief flicker was the only reported rollover disruption is noteworthy, serving as an example of the familiar adage, “no news is good news”-which continued as a common theme as midnight rolled across U.S. electric utilities.

Monitoring the rollover

EL&P spent New Year`s Eve at the President`s Council on Year 2000 Conversion Information Coordination Center (ICC) in Washington, D.C., monitoring the electric utility sector`s rollover status.

ICC was the command center for gathering Y2K status information for vital sectors of the economy including: building operations, education, energy, federal government operations, financial services/economic, food supply, health care, international, state, local and tribal government operations, telecommunications, transportation and water.

Operating under tight security, the ICC was on the 10th floor of an office building located about three miles from the Capitol building. Unassuming in appearance, the heart of the operation consisted of a few rows of tables with computer stations and telephones manned by ICC staff. If one had not been aware of the setup`s purpose, its significance would not have been evident based only on its appearance. In contrast, the adjacent media room was a hub of activity with a faint glow emitting from its doorway due to the banks of computers and televisions crowded onto tables and chairs At times, it appeared as if reporters outnumbered ICC staff.

The first status update for electric utilities was presented at 8:30 p.m. EST on New Year`s Eve by Bill Richardson, energy secretary. He reported the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) had experienced an act of sabotage resulting in a toppled transmission tower in a remote area of Oregon (125 miles south of The Dalles). An 80-foot tower was knocked over by tampering with its stabilizing wires. Obviously, the incident was not Y2K-related, and no customers lost power. Automatic system protection isolated the line and power was instantaneously transferred to other lines. The transmission line was carrying less energy than normal due to low weekend and holiday loads and because of the region`s Y2K operating plans. At press time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was continuing its investigation of the incident.

Richardson also reported the first Y2K-related incidents involving what the North American Electric Reliability Council referred to as “hiccups” with clocks that synchronize utility time to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). GMT rollover occurred at 7 p.m. EST.

Eight utilities reported the loss of the precision time signal sent from a satellite to receivers at control centers. Utilities` energy management systems rejected the erroneous time signal and gave an alarm to the operator. The energy management systems continued to use the internal clock with the synchronization feature disabled, and the clocks were reset. Electric systems were not affected and service to customers was not affected in any of the events.

The energy management systems were checked and were operating properly in all cases. The synchronization feature of the clock is a non-critical part of the system.

About 30 percent of the computers and communications systems used to control electric power systems in the United States and Canada use internal clocks that are referenced to GMT as a universal time standard.

Y2K fizzles on international scale

Richardson commented on the successful rollover of Eastern European electric utilities. He said, “The United States government worked very closely with these countries (Russia and the Ukraine) the last year cooperatively on some of their technology, and the countries on their own devoted a lot of resources and time and the problem was fixed. In Russia, we had three Y2K exercises with them in the last 45 days and they were successful in their nuclear power plants, and the Russians held one in our country and that was successful. With the Ukraine, we have three people out there that work very closely with the Ukrainian government, although the Ukrainian government deserves credit.”

Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater said of the overall Y2K rollover success, “Things have gone well because the government and industry and the public operated together because the government showed leadership. The world prepared, the world is ready. The world committed resources and worked together. And I think this is a very good example of the international community pulling together and dealing with a problem.”

Sliver of vulnerability

The Commerce Department estimated a tab of $100 billion in the United States to deal with Y2K issues of which $8.5 billion was spent by the government from 1995 to the present. The total spent around the world was $200 billion.

Billions of dollars may remedy software and hardware glitches, but the human factor can never be completely controlled, leaving open at least a sliver of vulnerability.

The quoted words of a ComEd spokeswoman in the first sentence of this article spotlight what was perhaps the industry`s greatest threat-the unpredictable behavior of someone intent on wreaking malice.

The explosion at the base of a ComEd transmission tower in Niles, Ill., blew out latticework and dislodged a cross-member on the tower. The blast caused a vibration in the tower that broke the electrical connection in a 345 kV line. The connection checked itself and, detecting no further problem, reset itself within a second.

A ComEd crew was at a substation near the tower and heard the explosion. They went to the tower and discovered the damage. At press time, the FBI was continuing its investigation.

The nation`s nuclear power plants were under close scrutiny due to safety concerns. Seven nuclear plants reported only minor Y2K problems with plant computer systems used to support physical plant access control, monitor operating data and calculate meteorological data. None of the affected systems jeopardized continued safe operations.

Other reported incidents at nuclear plants were not Y2K-related:

– Limerick Nuclear Unit No. 2, operated by PECO Energy, tripped at 1:11 a.m. EST, December 31, when a circuit breaker failed, resulting in flashover of a lightning arrestor on the unit`s main power transformer. This caused the unit to trip out of service. Power supplies remained adequate due to moderate demand and available reserve capacity in the area.

– Catawba Nuclear Unit No. 2, Duke Power Co., South Carolina, safely shut down at 6:21 p.m. EST due to an automatic actuation of the reactor protection system following a failure in the turbine hydraulic control system. Power supplies remained adequate following shutdown of the unit.

– Vogtle Unit 2, Southern Co., was manually shut down on December 30. During a reactor startup, one control rod was found to be withdrawn out of the proper sequence with other rods. In accordance with operating procedures, plant operators manually shut down the reactor

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