Yale Professor Who Pioneered Research on Accidents Sees Confusion and Disruption with Y2K

A Yale professor who changed the way experts look at serious accidents and catastrophes says he isn’t hoarding food and water in preparation for the Year 2000, but he is buying a generator.

I will buy a gasoline or propane fired generator to use in hurricanes and snowstorms and other outages we have every year,” said Sociology Professor Charles Perrow whose book, “Normal Accidents: Living With High Risk Technologies,” outlines the multiple failures that lead to disasters. “I also will have it on hand for the roughly 25 percent chance that my unpopular public utility will do as badly with Y2K as it has with nuclear power plants.”

Perrow’s book is being re-released by Princeton University Press with a lengthy afterword in which he addresses accidents and catastrophes that have occurred since the book was published in 1984 - principally Bhopal, Chernobyl and the Challenger. He also writes about Y2K, the much publicized transition period as computer chip-based systems change from the year 1999 to the year 2000.

“I think the United States will experience severe inconveniences and spotty service in many areas,” he said. “I don’t trust the railroad system to function as well as they predict. I think there will be serious problems with some hospital equipment, and it could be life threatening. And there are going to be other small glitches because testing one system is not enough. You have to test all of the systems it is connected to. The whole point of this analysis is that in a tightly wired country such as the U.S. everything is connected to everything else.”

Perrow’s theory is that everything in designed systems is subject to failure –from the design, equipment and procedures to the operators, supplies and environment. For this reason designers build in safeguards that tell operators when to take corrective action.

But occasionally two or more failures can interact in such a way as to defeat the safeguards and bring down part or all of a system. Since nothing is perfect, this vulnerability to unexpected interactions that defeat safety systems is an inherent part of the system, or a “normal” accident, he said.

If the system is complex with multiple interdependencies, which Perrow calls a “complexly interactive” system, there are more chances of unexpected interactions that can avoid or defeat safety systems and lead to a catastrophe, which he defines as 100 deaths in a single blow.

“If the system is also tightly coupled, these failures can cascade faster than any safety device or operator can cope with them, or they can even be incomprehensible to those responsible for doing the coping,” Perrow said in the afterword. “If the accident brings down a significant part of the system, and the system has catastrophic potential, we will have a catastrophe.”

The Y2K problem “could be the quintessential Normal Accident of both the 20th and the 21st centuries. We simply do not know what the date-dependent chips will do when the year comes up 00 – they may fail, ignore it, produce unreliable data, or make it impossible to restart the system,” he said.

“Rather than just ruin a midnight millennium party, it could be gathering force at an increasing rate in 1999, peaking in the first weeks of 2000, then falling off sharply but with a long tail of disturbances into the next couple of years,” Perrow said.

He said electric utilities will be the most vulnerable for three reasons: they cannot generate or deliver electricity without telecommunications, and telecommunications cannot operate without electricity, a classic Catch 22 situation; the utilities are dependent on available fuel supply and delivery; and independent power producers have no service obligations to provide base load power for regional bulk power entities, yet they provide a significant contribution to the overall energy mix in the U.S., particularly on the East and West coasts.

“If we experience only inconveniences and a few isolated cases of true hardship, we are indeed not as tightly coupled as we might think. Or remediation was more substantial than we thought,” he said. “If, however, the Y2K problem causes widespread hardship that threatens lives, causes 25 percent unemployment and consequent want, and throws the weakest parts of our society, and the weakest societies worldwide, into political instability, then we will have demonstrated a degree of tight coupling that belies robustness.”

“We then might consider a massive redesign that builds in buffers, firewalls, warnings, stops and disconnects, and duplication - the mechanical solidarity solution,” Perrow said. “Or we might consider decomposing big organizations and disconnecting cities and regions, decentralized government, soft technologies, and small as beautiful philosophies.”

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