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December 13, 2012
Power grid--large bull's-eye for terrorists

A report completed by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2007 and just recently made available to the public paints a dark picture of the susceptibility of the nation’s electric power grid to terrorist attack and the potential for resulting blackouts lasting far longer than those caused by Hurricane Sandy.

In a foreword to the report, the president of the National Academy of Sciences says the key findings remain “highly relevant.”  Another contributor states that attacks could produce damage costing hundreds of billions of dollars.

Inherently vulnerable

According to the report, the power grid is inherently vulnerable to physical attack because it is spread across hundreds of miles and many key facilities are unguarded.  The risk was made greater by the introduction of competition in the mid-1990s, which has overtaxed the transmission network, leaving it especially prone to multiple failures following an attack.  Important pieces of equipment are decades old and lack improved technology for sensing and control, which could help limit outages and their consequences.

Large high-voltage transformers that are located outside are of particular concern.   This equipment is difficult to move, often custom-built, and hard to replace.  Most are no longer made in the United States, and the delivery time for replacements can run from months to years.  The report discusses the potential development of a stockpile of universal recovery transformers that would be smaller and easier to move and could be used until full-size replacements are available.  In line with a recommendation made in the report, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working with the U.S. power industry on the RecX program to develop and test a recovery transformer.

Cyber attacks

Also, critical systems such as communications, sensors, and controls are potentially vulnerable to cyber attacks, the report states.  Any telecommunication link that is even partially outside the control of system operators could be an insecure pathway into operations and a threat to the grid.  Cyber security is best when connections with the outside world are eliminated.  When interconnections are unavoidable, high-quality technical and managerial security systems should be in place, including systems that monitor for and help avoid operator error or intentional sabotage. 

Strategies needed

The report recommends that the DHS and the Department of Energy initiate and fund several demonstration assessments across cities, counties, and states.  These assessments should systematically examine a region’s vulnerability to extended power outages and develop cost-effective strategies that can be adopted to reduce or eventually eliminate such vulnerabilities. 

The report also recommends that the DHS develop, test, and disseminate guidelines and tools to assist other cities, counties, states, and regions conduct their own assessments and develop plans to reduce vulnerability to extended power outages.  To facilitate these activities, public policy and legal barriers to communication and collaborative planning will need to be addressed.

Click here for information on obtaining NRC’s Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System.

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