Thursday, November 15, 2012

National Academy of Sciences releases booklet on the risk of "smaller" terrorist attacks on the power grid

The National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council) has released a new report, “Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System”, when can be downloaded for free as a “guest” at tha NAS site.  A purchase of a hardcopy for $49 is requested.  The ISNB is “0-309-11404-7”. The book runs 165 pages.

The report, which includes work back to 2007, stresses that terrorists could cause extreme, long-lasting disruptions in the power grid with conventional attacks on substations possibly from rockets fired from publicly accessible areas near the properties.  All power stations are on secured, heavily guarded private property.  Some have visitor’s centers (for example, Dominion Power’s visitor center for a nuclear station NW of Richmond is quite informative), and some are near highly traveled interstates with nearby parking areas.

Previous reports on vulnerability of power grids have focused on the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack from high altitude, only mentioned here in the appendix.  There has also been attention to the possibility of widespread damage from coronal mass ejections from solar geomagnetic storms, which has generally considered much more likely. Newt Gingrich, in particular, called attention to these vulnerabilities with an op-ed after last summer’s derecho.  However, this report shows that much smaller attacks could cause huge disruptions.  Conventional attacks could not affect home electronics and cars, but localized microwave-based EMP effects (as in the movie “Oceans 11”) are conceivable.
 According to the new report, one of the biggest problems would come from replacing specialized large transformers that step up and down electricity. Most are imported from overseas and are so large that they are difficult to transport quickly. 

There was an exercise in March 2012 transporting a specially designed transformer from St. Louis to Houston after a mock hurricane.

Deregulation of the power industry into components that generate and then distribute power has led to security vulnerabilities, the report says.

The report also suggests decentralizing some critical power infrastructure and loosening technical interdependencies within the grid, and putting more infrastructure underground, which the NAS believes could be done more efficiently than has been the case in the past.

It appears that the online version of the report may be enhanced once there has been a security classification review. 

See a review of an earlier NAS report on solar storms here Aug. 9. 
The New York Times discusses the report in an article by Matthew L. Wald on p. A23 of Wednesday, November 15, 2012 paper. I’ll cover this more soon on the Issues blog. 

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