Tuesday, November 20, 2012

US Electric Grid Inherently Vulnerable to Terrorists - New Report


November 16, 2012


If Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the power supply on the East Coast is any indication, a terrorist attack on the electrical grid could have devastating effects. A new report [see below] released Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences has only confirmed the need for improved infrastructure protection from both terrorism and natural disasters.

NAS described the current system as “inherently vulnerable” due to its widespread nature and poor security of facilities. The press release on the report stated that things only got worse for infrastructure security in the 1990s when legislation meant to introduce competition ended up putting a strain the high-voltage system. Age and old technology are factors as well.
“Power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States, be they from natural disasters or malfunctions, have had immense economic impacts,” M. Granger Morgan, professor and head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.  “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.”

Here are some of the recommendations for improvements made in the report:
·                       Stockpile recovery transformers that are smaller than our current high-voltage transformers. The report says although these smaller transformers are not as efficient, they would help with restoring efforts.

·                       To ensure cyber security, limit connections with the Internet, when possible. When it’s not possible, the report recommends high-quality security systems that include measures that can limit operator error and planned attacks.

·                       The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy should assess regional vulnerabilities that would occur in the event of an extended power outage and develop methods to reduce identified vulnerabilities. Provide guidelines and tools for municipalities to conduct “self-assessments.”

The New York Times pointed out a few more specific recommendations:
The report urges that cheaper ways be found to put power lines underground, which would protect them from some effects of storms, and also calls for changes in infrastructure that would reduce the kind of mutual dependencies that result in wider blackouts. For example, more traffic lights could run on high-efficiency L.E.D. lamps and be equipped with batteries, and small generators could be placed in spots where power is needed for pumping water. The natural gas system could be equipped with pumps that run on natural gas instead of electricity so that the system would survive an extended blackout. [Read more at the link above]


Date:  Nov. 14, 2012


Electric Power Grid 'Inherently Vulnerable' to Terrorist Attacks;
Report Delayed in Classification Review, Will Be Updated
WASHINGTON — 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.

"Power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States, be they from natural disasters or malfunctions, have had immense economic impacts," said M. Granger Morgan, professor and head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.  "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."

The report recommends ways to make the power delivery system less vulnerable to attacks, restore power faster after an attack or failure, and make critical social services less susceptible even if the delivery of conventional power is disrupted.  The report stresses the importance of investment in power system research, and notes that the level of actual investment in this research is currently much smaller than it should be.

High-voltage transformers are of particular concern because they are vulnerable both from within and from outside the substations where they are located.  These transformers are very large, difficult to move, often custom-built, and difficult to replace.  Most are no longer made in the United States, and the delivery time for new ones could run from months to years.  A promising solution, the report says, is to develop, manufacture, and stockpile a family of universal recovery transformers that would be smaller and easier to move.  They would be less efficient than those normally operated and would only be for temporary use, but they could drastically reduce delays in restoring disabled electric power systems.  In line with this recommendation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has recently cooperated with the U.S. power industry on the RecX program to develop and test a recovery transformer.

There are also critical systems -- communications, sensors, and controls -- that are potentially vulnerable to cyber attacks, whether through Internet connections or by direct penetration at remote sites.  Any telecommunication link that is even partially outside the control of the 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, the report says.  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.

The report states that although it is not reasonable to expect federal support for all local and regional planning efforts, DHS and/or the U.S. Department of Energy should initiate and fund several model 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.  Building on the results of these model assessments, DHS should develop, test, and disseminate guidelines and tools to assist other cities, counties, states, and regions to conduct their own assessments and develop plans to reduce vulnerabilities to extended power outages.  To facilitate these activities, public policy and legal barriers to communication and collaborative planning will need to be addressed.

This report was completed by the National Research Council in the fall of 2007, but the sponsoring agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, decided at that time that the report would be classified in its entirety.  After a formal request from the Research Council for an updated security classification review, the report was cleared for public release in fall 2012.  A foreword to the report, written by Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, provides details about the delay and says that the key findings of the report remain "highly relevant."  The foreword states:

"We regret the long delay in approving this report for public release.  We understand the need to safeguard security information that may need to remain classified.  But openness is also required to accelerate the progress with current technology and implementation of research and development of new technology to better protect the nation from terrorism and other threats."

Concurrent with the report's release to the public, a workshop is being planned to address changes that have occurred since the report's completion in 2007 and where future efforts should be directed to improve grid resilience.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.

Lorin Hancock, Media Relations Officer
Shaquanna Shields, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

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