Letters From the West

American Blackout shows effects of cyber Pearl Harbor


We all have gone through the inconvenience of a short power outage.
The lights go out. The air conditioner doesn’t work. No TV.

If it lasts a day because, perhaps a major storm blew down power lines, the food in the freezer melts and the lack of pumping might mean no water. But imagine 10 days without power, not just here but nationally.

No smart phones, no ATMs, no street lights, no gasoline pumps. No open food stores. That’s the story National Geographic Channel’s docudrama “American Blackout” tells Sunday at 7 p.m. The two-hour docudrama will look at what in the event of a cyberattack first brought to light by an experiment at the Idaho National Laboratory.

I just finished the book, “1940” by Susan Dunn, which tells of the political divide in the United States between isolationism and interventionism. The Republican Party was especially split because conservatives feared that war would bring restrictions on freedom and expand government even more than the New Deal had.

The division ended in one day, Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S. At a time when many of the same arguments are going on and defense and research spending has been cut by sequestration and the government shutdown, our own divisions could end in one sad day, or perhaps 10.

“The next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyber-attack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems,” said Leon Panetta, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense and the speaker at the conference Freedom and Secrecy, co-presented a decade ago by the Idaho Statesman, the Andrus Center for Public Policy and the Frank Church Institute.

The U.S. electrical grid connects us to 5,800 major power plants with more than 450,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines. Seventy percent of key power grid components are more than 25 years old, and the average age of power plants tops 30 years.

More than a dozen utilities reported “daily,” “constant” or “frequent” attempted cyberattacks, with one reporting approximately 10,000 attempts per month, a 2013 congressional report showed. Since 2003, 679 widespread power outages occurred due to severe weather, costing the U.S. an annual average between $18 billion and $33 billion.

In March of 2007 researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory triggered a simulated cyber attack, called Aurora, which caused an electric generator to self destruct. This experiment led to changes in software and hardware in the nation’s utility grid to reduce the threat.

The threat became apparent in 2010 when a program called Stuxnet infected an Iranian nuclear fuel processing plant destroying hundreds of centrifuges concentrating uranium. News reports also revealed the role the INL plays in the nation’s critical cybersecurity defense.

A lot of this is classified so the lab doesn’t go out of its way to talk about these programs but homeland security is one of the growth areas in the Idaho Falls-based research facility. It is always looking for people to hire even as other programs face cutbacks.

“These include efforts to defend the nation’s critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks, increase robustness of wireless communications for emergency responders, develop innovative ways to make the grid more resilient, and quantify the risks from potential event scenarios,” Brent Stacey, INL Associate Laboratory Director, National and Homeland Security said in a e-mail.

The INL uses its electric power test grid and Wireless National User Facility to explore cyber and physical security issues. In addition to cyber security, these include looking at the impact of solar flares and renewable power integration, Stacey said.

So is the scenario presented in “American Blackout” within the realm of possibility?

“I have only seen a short program clip and some introductory materials, so I cannot comment to the validity of the program or any conclusions,” Stacey said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West