Freak Blackouts Plunge Korea into Darkness

Blackouts paralyzed the entire country on Thursday afternoon. The sudden power outages began around 3 p.m. and affected offices, shops, baseball stadiums, theaters, supermarkets and shopping malls.

The National Emergency Management Agency reported 944 phone calls from people who were trapped in elevators across the country, 365 of them were in Seoul. Traffic snarled after traffic lights went out, and mobile phone services were partially halted after power was cut from base stations in some parts of the country.

◆ KEPCO Blunders

KEPCO's central power supply center in Seoul's Gangnam is the command center directing electricity production and distribution across the country. At 2 p.m., staff manning the control center were petrified as they watched real-time power supply data appearing on 16 large TV monitors. The graph displaying demand was rising almost vertically. By 3 p.m., the reserve power supply fell below 4 million kW, an emergency level.

Demand continued to rise even after 3 p.m., which was highly unusual. By 3:11 p.m., the reserve power supply fell below 3 million kW, prompting KEPCO chief Yeom Myung-chun to order power to be cut off. Power is normally cut only when the reserve power supply falls below 1 million kW, but nobody at the KEPCO opposed the order or raised questions.

Cho Bum-seok, the head of operations at KEPCO, passed on the order to power stations across the country. According to proper procedure, the move requires prior approval from the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, but the KEPCO panicked and bypassed it.

The reserve power supply had stood at 11 million kW just a day earlier, and the heat wave that gripped the country on Thursday had already been forecast several days ago, but KEPCO officials took no steps to prepare for it. Instead, they ordered power plants across the country to stop operations and begin maintenance works after the peak summer electricity demand season ended last week.

◆ Country Grinds to Halt

There was absolutely no warning of the power cuts. A total of 460,000 households in the capital, 220,000 in Gangwon and Chungcheong provinces, 340,000 in the Jeolla provinces and 600,000 in the Gyeongsang provinces went without electricity for 30 minutes. It was not until 4:35 p.m. that the reserve power level returned to 4 million kW level. At 7:48 p.m., Knowledge Economy Minister Choi Joong-kyung issued an apology, and power supply returned to normal at 7:56 p.m.

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 16, 2011 09:12 KST