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US power grid more vulnerable than ever to attacks, CRS report says

Power Grid (Oran Viriyincy/Flickr)
March 29, 2018

The Washington Free Beacon reported this week that, according to a new Congressional Research Service document, the U.S. electric grid has become increasingly vulnerable to attacks and does not currently have the capabilities to adequately counter would-be terrorists from severely impacting the nation’s infrastructure.

The report paints a troubling picture of the current state of the U.S.’ power grid, warning that “there is widespread belief that bulk power critical assets are vulnerable to physical attack, that such an attack potentially could have catastrophic consequences, and that the risks of such attacks are growing.”  According to the report, since 2014 “security risks to the power grid have become an even greater concern in the electric utility industry,” and the power industry as a whole “has not necessarily reached the level of physical security needed based on the sector’s own assessments of risk.”

Over the last three years, federal overseers have enacted new standards for physical security of grid locations, and the industry has attempted to improve its defenses. However, the report mentions that progress has been slow in implementing all of the necessary security measures; and moreover, the industry has not been able to keep up with the pace of new threats and attacks. The federal government also has limited ability in warning of incoming attacks, which has sparked Congressional concerns and influenced lawmakers to look further into what can be done to secure one of the country’s most valuable assets.

“Although the electric power sector seems to be moving in the overall direction of greater physical security for critical assets, many measures have yet to be implemented and the process of corporate realignment around physical security is still underway,” the report states.

While the U.S. has avoided any catastrophic power grid attacks, the September 2016 rifle attack on a transformer substation in Utah gave the industry an idea of its vulnerability. The event left 13,000 rural customers without power for up to eight hours, and it showed that “similar incidents could occur almost anywhere on the grid,” according to the document.

The National Academy of Sciences also had a similar warning on the potentially catastrophic consequences of a full-scale power grid attack.

“While to date there have been only minor attacks on the power system in the United States, large-scale physical destruction of key parts of the power system by terrorists is a real danger,” the group warned, according to the Free Beacon. “Some physical attacks could cause disruption in system operations that last for weeks or months.”

While the industry attempts to make the proper changes and improvements to secure the U.S. power grid, they appear to be facing an uphill battle, with attackers becoming increasingly more sophisticated. The Trump Administration has consistently pressed for infrastructure improvements, and it seems as though revitalizing the country’s power grid is a necessity.