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Power stations and phone lines need better protection

By Ted Terpstra
On February 13, 2014

It's easy to be alarmist when discussing matters of national security, especially in the post-Sept. 11 years. But there is a glaring vulnerability in American national security that has yet to be rectified by the federal government. It involves electrical power transformers, such as the ones found in substations throughout the United States. Complicated, expensive and difficult to replace - destroyed transformers can cost millions in damages and cause a blackout for thousands of customers. A report released two years ago by the National Research Council highlighted the vulnerability of electrical transformers to terrorist attack, but so far both the public sector and federal government have been slow to respond to the threat. Nothing illustrated the potential dangers of such an attack so clearly as the events of last April 16.
It was the early morning after the Boston Marathon bombing, when unknown individuals fired 150 rounds into 17 transformers at an electrical substation near San Jose, Calif. Officials were able to avoid a blackout in Silicon Valley because electrical demand was low at the time, and power was quickly rerouted. The attack cost $15.7 million in damages according to the California Public Utilities Commission and left the transformers inoperable for a month. Specialists from the FBI and the Department of Defense found that the perpetrators had cut six AT&T fiber optic cables in an attempt to shut off nearby surveillance cameras before firing into the substation from 40 yards away. The attackers hit only the radiators of the transformers in an effort to avoid an explosion which would have been visible from a nearby freeway. Investigators also found small piles of rocks, indicating possible vantage points and shell casings that were devoid of fingerprints. Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, characterized the attack as "the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has occurred in North America." The implications of a potential long term blackout in Silicon Valley, the heartland of America's technology sector, are not to be underestimated.
We got lucky. In this instance, there was no blackout and the lights stayed on. If anything, this attack was a wake-up call. Our electrical substations, often located in rural areas, are in urgent need of additional security. But who should be in charge of securing the substations? Mr. Wellinghoff says that the FERC does not have to authority to take action. Despite the threat, Congress has failed to address the issue. In 2010 the Grid Reliability Infrastructure and Defense Act was put up for vote before Congress. This bill would have given federal regulators the authority to increase security specifications, had it not died in Senate. Given the political deadlock today it might be time for an intervention by the executive branch, perhaps in the form of an executive order. Regardless, now is not the time to squabble over who will pay for such security measures and who is responsible for implementing them. Let's fix the problem and settle the bill later, or we will have to face the consequences of our inaction.
Some possible solutions to the threat include the addition of multiple surveillance cameras at each substation and large concrete barriers to protect transformers. Logically, responsibility for such security matters would belong to the Department of Homeland Security. Utility companies would also play a role. It would be best for the FERC to establish incentives that would promote the public sector to take substation security more seriously. The public sector would not need much incentive, the millions of dollars in potential damages is almost enough of an incentive by itself. The federal government should also be ready for the worst case scenario. A well-coordinated terrorist attack could mean that many transformers are destroyed quickly, possibly denying electricity to residents in multiple states. There are surprisingly few spare transformers available, and those that are available are hard to transport. The Department of Energy must stockpile extra transformers as well as establish a system of easily transporting them. If prevention fails, we must be prepared for the aftermath.
What of the unidentified individuals responsible for the attack last April? The FBI still has not made any arrests in the case. Let's not wait for our luck to run out; next time our nation should be properly prepared.  


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