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The Electric Power System is Insecure

Our interconnected and highly visible electric power system is extremely vulnerable, and not just to terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

In fact, most power outages are caused by problems in the distribution system, and 85 percent of those are caused by squirrels.

It’s no great surprise then that the power routinely goes out — even during predictable storms — disrupting and sometimes endangering lives.

Industry standards require that hospitals keep operating during a disaster such as a power outage. Yet the reality is that few can remain fully operational for long. For example, some Boston hospitals do not have enough diesel oil to run their backup generators for more than a day or two.

Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center ran out of fuel for its generators after just 24 hours, while flood waters were still rising. By comparison, Baptist Memorial Hospital, which has an on-site cogeneration facility, was the only hospital in the Jackson, Miss., metropolitan area to remain nearly 100 percent operational during and immediately after the hurricane.

If a fully anticipated storm can so cripple the electric power system, the potential damage caused by terrorist attack is staggering. A single nuclear weapon exploded far above the earth would result in power outages across the 70 percent of the country.

There is evidence that terrorist organizations are considering an attack on the power grid. In the summer of 2001, the coordinator for the city of Mountain View, Calif.’s Web site noticed a suspicious pattern of intrusions. The FBI investigated and found similar “multiple casings of sites” in other cities throughout the United States. The probes seemed to originate in the Middle East and South Asia, and the visitors were looking up information about the cities’ utilities, government offices and emergency systems. This information took on new significance when U.S. intelligence officials examined computers seized from al-Qaida operatives after the Sept. 11 attacks and discovered what appeared to be a broad pattern of surveillance of U.S. infrastructure.

Yet the electric power system appears to be extremely vulnerable to even relatively unsophisticated cyberattacks.

In 1997, as part of a previously classified Department of Defense exercise — code name “Eligible Receiver” — a team of hackers from the National Security Agency (NSA) was organized to infiltrate the Pentagon systems. Using only publicly available computer equipment and hacking software, the team was able to infiltrate and take control of the computers serving the U.S. Pacific Command center, as well as power grids and 911 systems in nine major U.S. cities.

More than 50 percent of the electric utility personnel who responded to a survey by the Electric Power Research Institute believe that an intruder in the information and control systems at an electric utility could cause serious impact on, or beyond, the region for more than 24 hours. Open sources — including Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) filings, electric industry publications, regional maps and the Internet — could provide enough information to identify the most heavily loaded transmission lines and most critical substations in the power grid. Relatively simple hacking techniques could then be used to locate dial-in ports to these points and modify settings to trigger an outage. Only a detailed review of logs or the elimination of all other factors would lead to the detection of such an attack.

In the event of a simultaneous accident in which a nuclear power station is shut down at the same time the main power lines fail, the emergency siren system for the entire emergency planning zone will lose power and be unable to alert the surrounding population. In response to a petition filed by Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and 16 other organizations and local governments, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) revealed that 28 reactor emergency planning zone siren systems are entirely reliant upon electricity from their regional grids. Another 18 sites have only partial emergency power backup available to siren systems. Only 17 reactor sites have siren systems that are fully backed up with emergency power systems that would allow them to remain operational independent of the failure of main power lines.

A 2004 study published in the European Physical Journal E: Soft Matter identified strategic points along the North American power grid that, if affected, could cause significant system-wide disruptions. The study found that a loss of only 4 percent of the 10,287 transmission substations would result in a 60 percent loss of connectivity for the entire electric power system. During a cascading failure, in which high-load substations fail in sequence, the failure of only 2 percent of certain strategic points along the system would cause a catastrophic failure of the entire system.