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Attack on Electrical Grid Could Collapse Economy

No plan exists to help localities prepare for a lengthy blackout

The control room at Covanta Energy's resource recovery facility in Alexandria, Va., monitors power generation and pollutants (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The control room at Covanta Energy's resource recovery facility in Alexandria, Va., monitors power generation and pollutants (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It was like something from a Hollywood movie, but it was real. At about 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 23, a computer in an electricity distribution center in western Ukraine seemed to take on a life of its own. While a helpless worker watched, the cursor on the screen moved by itself and clicked on a box that opened a series of circuit breakers — a move that would take the entire power station offline.  


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When a dialogue box appeared asking for confirmation of the command, the ghostly cursor moved again and completed the action. Reaching frantically for the mouse, the worker tried to abort what was happening, but the computer was being controlled from elsewhere. In all, about 30 substations were taken out of commission and 225,000 customers were suddenly cut off from the power supply. It marked what is believed to be the world’s first successful cyber-attack on a nation’s power grid.  

What happened is ominous because it reminded us that we should not believe ourselves immune to such an attack, even in the United States. A cyberattack on the power grid could leave millions of residents and key physical locations without power for an extended period of time. It is a discouraging fact that unlike every other hazard we are likely to face, from hurricanes to earthquakes and chemical attacks to space weather, there is no specific planning scenario to help state and local governments prepare for an extensive blackout.  


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This prompts a blizzard of questions: How long will the power be out? How many people will be impacted? What backups need to be in place to protect our citizens?  

With this in mind, I hosted an April hearing on the consequences of a massive, coordinated attack on the electrical grid, in my role as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.  

We asked our witnesses from the Department of Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to provide the realistic timeframe for which we should be prepared for the power to be out. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was clear, saying, “Planning needs to be measured in weeks.” The other witnesses agreed.  

As a former mayor of my hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, I know that localities will be on the front lines during a widespread, lengthy outage and will be tasked with handling much of the response. While our subcommittee witnesses tried to assure us that there were numerous efforts underway to help prepare state and local governments for the unthinkable, the mayors and local elected officials I frequently talk to feel they do not have all the information they need to prepare for such a catastrophe. We must be ready to deal with disruptions in telecommunications, water and waste treatment, healthcare delivery, financial services and transportation.  

There is no question that good communication is vital during the reaction to a disaster, but it is also critical when crafting a response strategy in advance. Since I believe that all disasters are local events, it is important that we tie in localities with states and the federal government so that the greatest coordination can be achieved. All levels of government must cooperate and anticipate all types of disasters.  

The FBI and the Homeland Security Department are hosting briefings for local governments, law enforcement, and energy companies to discuss and develop strategies for mitigating risk and providing better defense. In addition, I have been meeting with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. These national organizations have committed to identify initiatives that cut across all levels of government and create plans we can put in the hands of officials at the state and local levels.  

Some pre-planning has already been undertaken, such as exercises conducted by NERC and PPL — one of the largest electric utilities in the nation. At our hearing, PPL President and CEO Bill Spence told of regular internal exercises and external drills with other utilities to practice their responses to various disaster scenarios. By extending this training by linking up state and local officials to the utilities, relationships will be formed, information will be shared, and efforts will be maximized.  

If the goal of terrorists is to collapse our economy, then shutting down our electrical grid is where they would start. Most troubling is the possibility that a cyberattack would be accompanied by a physical terrorist attack, a scenario that promises true havoc, panic and loss of life. The great challenge is that the threat continues to evolve, which only means that we are forced to evolve with it and be prepared for it.  

Rep. Lou Barletta is a Republican from Pennsylvania .  

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