In 2007 the National Academy of Sciences completed an extensive review of the national power grid infrastructure in a 164 page report titled Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. In it the NAS detailed a wide array of physical, personnel and cyber vulnerabilities that could pose a significant risk to the national security of the United States.
Even though the report was originally written for public release, notes Madison Ruppert of End the Lie, the entire document was almost immediately classified by the Department of Homeland Security and hasn’t seen the light of day until this week. That release came after five years of committee reviews, reversals, deliberations and pressure from the Academy itself.
The contents of the report make it clear why DHS wanted to keep it out of public view, as it illustrates severe deficiencies within the whole of the national power grid infrastructure.
So serious are the problems, that a coordinated attack by just a few people in just a few critical components could wreak such havoc that the effects would be measured in hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives:
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.
Terrorist attacks on multiple-line transmission corridors could cause cascading blackouts.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. These transformers are very large, difficult to move, custom-built, and difficult to replace.
Most are no longer made in the United States, and the delivery time for new ones can run to months or years. The industry has made some progress toward building an inventory of spares, but these efforts could be overwhelmed by a large attack. Although easier to move and replace, other large components, such as high voltage circuit breakers, are also a concern.
These problems are exacerbated by the current state of the transmission grid. It is aging and increasingly stressed, leaving it especially vulnerable to multiple failures following an attack. Many important pieces of equipment are decades old and lack improved technology that could help limit outages.
Full Report: National Academy of Sciences
The NAS originally compiled the report under direction of Homeland Security. Their intent was that DHS would take the information and use it to improve the grid by reducing vulnerabilities and upgrading outdated components.
Because DHS sat on this for five years, none of the proactive measures recommended by the report have been taken, so we are exactly where we were in 2007.
If we look to the most recent grid failure in the north east as a guide, a rogue attack on essential components of the regional and national power infrastructure, or a powerful enough solar storm, could do some serious damage.
No electricity, as we have seen recently, means no refrigeration, no fuel, no clean water, no transportation and no rapid emergency response.
In an isolated area where 50,000 to 100,000 people are affected the situation can be managed.
But what happens when we’re talking about fifty or more major metropolitan areas and tens of millions of people from coast-to-coast?