Bolstering the Security of the Electric Power System: The Infrastructure Cannot Be Made Invulnerable, but the Industry Can Improve Its Ability to Provide Service Even When Attacked

By Farrell, Alexander E.; Lave, Lester B. et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Bolstering the Security of the Electric Power System: The Infrastructure Cannot Be Made Invulnerable, but the Industry Can Improve Its Ability to Provide Service Even When Attacked


Farrell, Alexander E., Lave, Lester B., Morgan, Granger, Issues in Science and Technology


The 2001 terrorist attacks made it clear that our airliners, tall buildings, water, and even our mail are potential targets. What will actually be attacked depends on the terrorists' goals, the damage that could be done, and our ability to protect each one. Terrorists attack highly visible, symbolic targets in order to make each of us fear that "this could happen to me." Although it is impossible to prevent terrorists from causing disruptions in a free society, much can be done to limit their ability to spread panic.

Energy, transportation, telecommunication, and water infrastructures are potentially attractive targets, because some elements of these complex systems are nearly impossible to protect and disruptions could impose large costs, threaten our well-being, and possibly cause thousands of deaths. In the wake of September 11, the electric power system in particular faces a number of important challenges--challenges that will require greater government involvement than has previously existed.

The need to protect power systems against ice storms, earthquakes, and other natural disasters has created a set of institutions and a physical system that can handle a wide range of physical insults. The current U.S. electric power system could likely handle all but the largest, best-organized physical attacks by terrorists. Experience demonstrates that even large-scale power outages would not create terror. However, the current system is not adequately managed to eliminate vulnerabilities at high-hazard facilities (such as nuclear reactors and spent nuclear fuel storage areas) or to deal with attack modes it was not designed to withstand (such as cyber-attack or exotic weaponry).

Further, vulnerabilities have been created by the increasing interdependence among complex networked systems supporting electricity service. More study is needed to understand these vulnerabilities and to determine the best ways of preventing loss. However, it is clear that "defense" is no longer the best strategy to pursue. Rather than attempting to develop an invulnerable fortress, it makes more sense to improve the "survivability" of the system. No one can prevent a terrorist from taking down a transmission pole. However, the system can be configured so that although the failure of single elements may lead to discomfort, the electric power system will still be able to fulfill its mission in a timely manner even in the presence of attacks, failures, or accidents, and recover successfully.

The radical restructuring now taking place in the electric power system because of regulatory changes also threatens the system's robustness. Competitive markets will force the adoption of the lowest-cost solutions to providing electricity under the stipulated rules. If security is not an attractive investment above a minimal level, companies will not be able to make investments. Because security is a classic public good, our expectation is that it will not be an attractive investment. Thus, it is up to government to answer questions concerning how much the nation is willing to pay for additional security, what organizations will be charged with ensuring it, and who should pay for it. Currently, many different organizations inside and outside government, at the state and national levels, envision themselves as holding the primary authority and responsibility for governance over electric power system security. Congress must resolve this issue but do so carefully, because many tradeoffs are involved. It needs t o decide both what sort of institutional arrangement to create and how to pay for improvements.

Turning out the lights

Many terrorism scenarios involve disruption of electric service, or "turning out the lights." Whether this would allow terrorists to create widespread fear and panic is open to question. In the United States, households lose power for an average of 90 minutes per year. …

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