U.S. Power System “Inherently Vulnerable” to Terrorist Attack
The U.S. seems to focus most of its Homeland Security resources on protecting transportation against terrorism while seemingly insignificant targets like the country’s electric power delivery system remain dangerously vulnerable to an attack that could cause tremendous damage.
An attack on the system, which carries electricity from large central generators to customers throughout the nation, could be devastating because all parts of the economy as well as human health and welfare depend on electricity. A new government report reveals this, stating that “power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States, be they from natural disasters or malfunctions, have had immense economic impacts.”
The audit was conducted by the federally-funded National Research Council to assess the vulnerability of the nation’s power system, which includes lines that span hundreds of miles and key facilities that are unguarded. “Considering that a systematically designed and executed terrorist attack could cause disruptions even more widespread and of longer duration, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that such attacks could produce damage costing hundreds of billions of dollars,” according to the report.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the power grid is being used in ways for which it was not designed. The system was originally designed to meet the needs of individual vertically integrated utilities and is being utilized to move power between regions. As a result many portions of the bulk high-voltage system are “heavily stressed” and especially at risk to multiple failures following an attack.
Additionally, crucial pieces of equipment are decades old and in desperate need of new technology that could sense and control outages and their consequences. In short, the country’s antiquated power grid is in horrible shape and virtually ignored by Homeland Security officials as pa potential target. Terrorists could carry out an attack with “little risk of detection or interdiction,” the report says. “Further well-planned and coordinated attacks by terrorists could leave the electrical power system in a large region of the country at least partially disabled for a very long time.”
There is one tiny bright spot in all this, according to researchers who probed the matter: “International terrorists have shown limited interest in attacking the U.S. power grid.” That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. There are many examples of terrorist and military attacks on power systems elsewhere in the world, the report points out. The lack of a domestic attempt should not be a basis for complacency.