Blackout shakes Olympic city

In a major embarrassment, Athens and most of southern Greece suffered one of the worst blackouts of the last 20 years yesterday, just a month and a day before the Greek capital hosts the Olympic Games. The blackout, which hit Athens at 12.39 p.m., was blamed on bad management, mistaken assumptions and a lack of coordination by officials involved in the management of the country’s power supply. Officials said that the country had not suffered a shortage of electricity, as it had spare capacity of some 800 megawatts when the blackout occurred. Although the outage raised serious concerns as to whether Athens would be fit to host the Olympics that begin on August 13, officials said that there had been no problem at Olympic installations, at the airport, at hospitals, and at key government ministries, such as the Defense Ministry. Traffic police were quickly out in force to help end the traffic jams that resulted from drivers converging on major intersections from every direction. The outage caused chaos on Athens streets, as traffic lights were knocked out, and thousands of passengers in the subway system had to walk along the tracks to stations in order to reach the surface. An angry and concerned Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis summoned Development Minister Dimitris Sioufas to his office to explain the situation. Sioufas said that a special committee would be set up to investigate. The government wants anyone responsible for the blackout to be held accountable. The Cabinet is expected to discuss the issue today. All the opposition parties blamed the government for a lack of planning and cooperation, though the Communist Party and the Synaspismos Left Coalition also cast blame on PASOK, which was in government until the March 7 elections. The independent state body responsible for distributing power, known by its acronym DESMIE SA, appeared to be behind the problem. «The blackout was not caused by a shortage of power – as there was auxiliary power of 800 megawatts – as all necessary measures have been taken,» Sioufas told a news conference earlier. «It was caused by mistaken estimates in the management of the system’s high voltage. From the very start, the Development Ministry, the Public Power Corporation and DESMIE were placed on alert. And so, in record time (of about an hour) normal power supply had been restored to about 70 percent of affected areas,» Sioufas said. «We call on citizens for understanding and we assure them, once again, that all measures have been taken for an overabundant power supply for the smooth and uninterrupted supply of power over the whole country during the Olympic Games.» Sioufas said that all Olympic installations are fitted with UPS (uninterrupted power supply) systems which spring into action within seconds of a power cut. Also, from July 7 to August 8, five more power substations will be coming on line in the Attica region. «I want to note that at all Olympics preparation installations everything worked smoothly and satisfactorily. The same applies to hospitals, to the Defense Ministry and for Olympic hotels and other hotels,» Sioufas said. The Athens 2004 Organizing Committee also said that all measures had been taken to ensure an uninterrupted power supply during the Games. DESMIE said in a news release that the problem was caused by the failure of a power production unit at Lavrion near Athens «when it was restarted after a fault was fixed, in combination with the heavy load on the system.» It said that this knocked out synchronization between production units in the «southern system» and led to the cut in supply to consumers in mainland Greece south of Lamia, Attica, the Peloponnese, Evia and the islands of Cephalonia, Zakynthos, Lefkada and Andros. «The restoration of power began immediately after the incident and was completed gradually by 7 p.m.,» it said.