Thousands seen dying if terrorists attack 'vulnerable' US Grid

 

Washington

A terrorist attack on the US power grid could be more destructive than superstorm Sandy, possibly costing hundreds of billions of dollars and leading to thousands of deaths, the National Academy of Sciences says.

While such an event probably wouldn't kill people immediately, it could cause widespread blackouts for weeks or months, according to a recently declassified report released Wednesday by the Academy. If it occurred during extreme weather, heat stress or exposure to cold may lead to "hundreds or even thousands of deaths," the authors of the study wrote.

"An event of this magnitude and duration could lead to turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helplessness that would play directly into the hands of the terrorists," they said.

While other entities have issued reports on electric-grid vulnerabilities, the study released today provides an unusually stark picture of what may happen if hackers, extremist groups, disgruntled employees or even energy companies themselves sabotage the nation's power network. It calls for the government to create a national inventory of portable generation equipment that can be used during such an event.

An attack "could be carried out by knowledgeable attackers with little risk of detection or interdiction," it said.

The study released by the National Academy of Sciences was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and completed by the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences. Although the report was completed in 2007, President George W. Bush's administration a year later prevented it from being distributed publicly. The panel of experts who prepared the report, believing it contained no classified information, pressed for its dissemination, and in August the the administration of President Barack Obama agreed to declassify most of the report.

National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J. Cicerone, and Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, in a foreward to the report, said its key findings remain "highly relevant." The men are also chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the National Research Council.

The U.S. electricity network consists of a complicated web of generators, high-voltage power lines, lower voltage lines that run to homes and businesses, substations and other gear to keep electricity flowing smoothly across the country. The National Academy of Engineering called the transmission and distribution system, or the grid, "the world's largest integrated machine."

Threats to the network include physical and cyber attacks on equipment that is often decades-old and lacks the technology to limit the effects of such an event, the study said.

While a hurricane or ice storm usually only takes down distribution lines that utility crews can put back up, terrorists can disable transformers, which may take years to replace, said Alan Crane, a senior scientist who worked on the report. A well-planned operation could take out several substations, he said.

"It's the multiple attacks that have the really scary consequences," Crane said. Although the probability of such a conspiracy is low, the consequences "could just be really awful."

The report raises questions about how a blackout would affect services including medical care, the water supply and the pumping of natural gas, which uses compressors powered by electricity, he said.

"Living without electricity is one thing," Crane said. "Living without water is something else."

An attack could inflict more damage than superstorm Sandy, which roared across the Eastern U.S. at the end of October, according to a statement released with the study. The storm temporarily tripped power to three nuclear reactors and caused a fourth, owned by Exelon Corp., to declare an alert.

Tens of thousands of people are still without power. The chief operating officer of the Long Island Power Authority resigned after Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, where 2 million homes and businesses lost electricity, ordered an investigation into the performance of the state's utility companies.

Insured losses from the disaster will probably exceed $20 billion, according to QBE Insurance Group Ltd., which had a 3.5 percent share of U.S. commercial property insurance during the second quarter.

"High-voltage transformers are of particular concern because they are vulnerable to attack, both from within and from outside the substation where they are located," according to the report. Transformers are often custom-built, difficult to transport because of their size, and made outside the U.S., meaning that the industry's inventory could be "overwhelmed by a large attack," it said.

Exacerbating the risk is the restructuring of grid ownership and oversight, begun in the 1990s to introduce more competition in the electricity marketplace, according to the study. Companies in California and regions including the Northeast and Midwest have ceded power-line network operations to independent grid authorities and compete in wholesale markets to supply electricity. Other regions, such as the Southeast have not restructured, resulting in patchwork of market systems across the United States.

"The push by federal regulators to introduce competition in bulk power across the country has also resulted in the transmission network being used in ways for which it was not designed," the study's authors wrote.

A 2005 U.S. energy law included measures to strengthen the power grid's reliability, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission now has the ability to issue fines as high as $1 million per day for each reliability violation.

Cyber attacks on the electric grid "are unlikely to cause extended outages, but if well coordinated they could magnify the damage of a physical attack," according to the report. Hackers could manipulate computerized systems on a network that is becoming increasingly digital, disabling security, blocking signals to operators or tampering with the buying and selling energy through markets linked by the Internet, it said.

Attackers of the grid may include terrorist groups, computer hackers, disgruntled or bored individuals, or energy companies. A 2011 report from the Electric Power Research Institute said that about $3.7 billion in investment is needed to protect the grid from cyber attacks.

Energy companies including utilities would have to increase their investment in computer security more than seven-fold to reach an ideal level of protection, according to a January survey done for Bloomberg Government by the Ponemon Institute, a data-security research firm based in Traverse City, Mich. The survey of network managers at 21 energy companies including 14 utilities found the companies would need an average annual budget of $344.6 million to stop 95 percent of their cyber threats.

The report released Wednesday recommends that the Homeland Security Department take the lead in overseeing electric-grid security, working with the Energy Department and private companies to create a stockpile of mobile reserve equipment, including transformers, for the network. It also calls for the security agency to work with the FERC, state regulators, utilities and grid operators to make sure they have "appropriate incentives" to upgrade the system.

The release of the report will speed the adoption of new technology that will better protect the grid, Cicerone and Vest said.

Utilities including American Electric Power Co. of Columbus, Ohio, have already been working together to share cyber-threat information learned from software developed by Lockheed Martin Corp.

 

— With assistance from Mark Chediak in San Francisco and Freeman Klopott in Albany, N.Y.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultan...

Recruitment Genius: Plumber

£22000 - £25900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is expanding and th...

Recruitment Genius: Corporate Account Manager

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Corporate Account Manager is ...

Recruitment Genius: Chef de Partie

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This award winning conference venues provider...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders