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Nov 17

National Research Council: Electric Power Grid ‘Inherently Vulnerable’ to Terrorist Attacks

I recently wrote about the vulnerabilities of our national power grid and referred to it as our nation’s Achilles’ Heel.  Personally I feel this is one of the largest threats that we face as a nation, even more so than traditional terrorist attacks. We recently witnessed the chaos that erupted after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to regions of the north east for periods of up to two weeks (more in some cases). People were overwhelmed and completely unprepared for such hardships, even those with portable generators quickly found that a lack of gasoline rendered their backup plan useless. Keeping in mind what happened after Hurricane Sandy, imagine what would happen if widespread blackouts were triggered across the entire country for weeks or even months. Imagine how quickly basic services would break down, people would start going hungry and looting would begin. If this were to take place during periods of extreme weather people would be suffering (and possibly die) in sweltering heat or freezing cold. Needless to say this threat is one that has terrible implications associated with it, and it is a threat that is very real.

Recently the National Research Council (NRC) released a report entitled Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. The report was completed in 2007 but the Department of Homeland Security determined that it should remain classified in nature. Most likely their rationale for not releasing the report had to do with not tipping our hand, or making it easier for terrorists interested in harming our power grid by voluntarily releasing a report which lists out our vulnerabilities. The report was eventually cleared for release this past fall and provides shocking detail on just how vulnerable we truly are, which is summarized in the press release which was published by the NRC on November 14, 2012.

The U.S. electric power delivery system is vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could cause much more damage to the system than natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, blacking out large regions of the country for weeks or months and costing many billions of dollars, says a newly released report by the National Research Council.

According to the report, the security of the U.S. electric power system is in urgent need of attention. The power grid is inherently vulnerable physically because it is spread across hundreds of miles, and many key facilities are unguarded. This vulnerability is exacerbated by a reorganizational shift in the mid-1990s, prompted by federal legislation to introduce competition in bulk power across the country, resulting in the transmission network being used in ways for which it was not designed. As a result, many parts of the bulk high-voltage system are heavily stressed, leaving it especially at risk to multiple failures following an attack. Important pieces of equipment are decades old and lack improved technology for sensing and control that could help limit outages and their consequences — not only those caused by a terrorist attack but also in the event of natural disasters.

The report itself can be be found on the National Academies Press website and covers 10 main areas:

  • The Electric Transmission and Distribution System as a Terrorist Targetwith
  • The Electric Power System Today
  • Physical Security Considerations for Electric Power Systems
  • Vulnerabilities of Systems for Sensing, Communication, and Control
  • Vulnerabilities Related to the People Who Run the Electric Power System
  • Mitigating the Impact of Attacks on the Power System
  • Restoration of the Electric Power System After an Attack
  • Strategies for Securing Crucial Services and Critical Infrastructure in the Event of an Extended Power Outage
  • Research and Development Needs for the Electric Power Delivery System
  • Recommendations

If you don’t feel like digging into the report itself and want a once over the world of just how big of a problem this is, look no further than page 1 of the summary:

The electric power delivery system that carries electricity from large central generators to customers could be severely damaged by a small number of well-informed attackers. The system is inherently vulnerable because transmission lines may span hundreds of miles, and many key facilities are unguarded. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that the power grid, most of which was originally designed to meet the needs of individual vertically integrated utilities, is now being used to move power between regions to support the needs of new competitive markets for power generation. Primarily because of ambiguities introduced as a result of recent restructuring of the industry and cost pressures from consumers and regulators, investment to strengthen and upgrade the grid has lagged, with the result that many parts of the bulk high-voltage system are heavily stressed.

A terrorist attack on the power system would lack the dramatic impact of the attacks in New York, Madrid, or London. It would not immediately kill many people or make for spectacular television footage of bloody destruction. But if it were carried out in a carefully planned way, by people who knew what they were doing, it could deny large regions of the country access to bulk system power for weeks or even months. 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. If such large extended outages were to occur during times of extreme weather, they could also result in hundreds or even thousands of deaths due to heat stress or extended exposure to extreme cold.

The largest power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States have caused high economic impacts. Considering that a systematically designed and executed terrorist attack could cause disruptions that were even more widespread and of longer duration, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that such attacks could entail costs of hundreds of billions of dollars.

The problem has been identified (at length) and now the question remains, what are we to do about it. Long term catastrophic power outages will render most household generators useless. Those who continue to run them after a few weeks will become easy targets for looters. The perception will be that someone who still has power has food and a hungry group of people armed with guns (in an area light on law enforcement) will be tough to contend with. Instead of looking for ways to keep our refrigerators on and trying to maintain the everyday comforts of life, we should try to focus on more important (and possibly life saving) courses of action when planning for long term power outages. Here are some recommendations.

  • Discuss this problem with your neighbors, sketch out some tentative plans on how you might deal with this. You have to break the mold in that traditional problem solving which we have all been accustomed to might not be an option. Calling 911, waiting for the police or National Guard, waiting for some government agency to fly in and make everything better again all have to be taken off the table. Remember those people have families too and in a widespread outage who knows how available they will be. Focus on what your community can influence when it comes to finding food, water, and planning for security.
  • Make sure your preps are aligned so that you will still be able to survive without power. If you have freeze dried food or meals which require hot water how will you boil it? How will you boil water to purify it if you do not already have a filtration system? Your toilet probably won’t flush and you will still have to use the bathroom, think about sanitary problems you might face. The trash man won’t be coming around every Monday to remove your garbage, will you burn it or bury it?
  • Be prepared for extreme weather, especially the cold. Those who have the luxury of having a wood burning stove or traditional fireplace in the home should have plenty of wood stacked up and ready to go. For those who can’t burn wood inside, try looking into indoor safe heaters (some run on propane). Make sure to discuss safety considerations for using these, plenty of people have died because of carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to stay warm
  • Make sure to have a get home bag in your vehicle (one for each vehicle). If you are at work or just traveling to the outlet mall over the weekend and an attack occurs it could take you a few days to get home, and you would most definitely be on foot. In addition to all of the survival supplies make sure to have a set of comfortable clothes and good walking shoes in your trunk. Nobody wants to walk 30 miles in heels or Cole Haan dress shoes.
  • Take the initiative and do not put off preparing for a threat like this. If the lights go out and do not come back on for weeks or even months you will not be able to go down to Walmart to buy supplies. You will not be able to run down to buy gasoline or propane. You will not be able to live your life as you once did, and it will happen all in an instant. Failing to plan is planning to fail.  Good luck.

 

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2 comments

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  1. GA

    Grid down conditions in my opinion is the worst possible scenario. Mass chaos and large die-offs would occur for certain. Scary stuff that motivates us to prepare even more!

    1. PJ

      I totally agree. The confusion and chaos in the initial weeks would be unprecedented. The fact that this threat is so often overlooked is quite puzzling….

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