(CBS) — Criminal action or natural disaster, there are warnings that both pose impending threats to our electrical grid. In this Original Report, CBS 2’s Dave Savini looks at the security of our power system. Whether the electric grid gets hacked by cyber criminals, physically attacked at a power plant or Mother Nature strikes — all could be devastating to the system.
Security breaches and sabotage happened twice last year at a California power plant. The worst of it: gunfire and 17 transformers getting knocked out. An act by unknown criminals, but some have called it a possible dress rehearsal for a greater assault on our electrical grid.
Dr. Michael Frankel, a scientist who headed a Congressional Commission, says there has been a failure to fully protect our electrical grid from physical, cyber and natural threats.
“We are vulnerable right now, and what’s more, the vulnerability has been growing,” said Frankel.
One fear is terrorists could knock out several substations in a few key cities causing complete chaos and a domino effect. A federal report found that hitting less than a dozen substations in different areas could cause the country to go dark.
“The prospect of simultaneous failure is something to be feared,” said Frankel who said Chicago would be a good target. “A lot of damage could be done. I mean, if you’re a terrorist, what more could you want?”
It is not just protecting the grid from a physical attack. There are fears about what a cyber attack could do.
James Joseph directs Homeland Security in DuPage County.
“There would be immediate impacts to everything that is critical to us. Everything around us,” said Joseph.
Getting the power grid back up could take weeks, months, even a year. Jonathon Monken is director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
“You can’t quickly replace the equipment at those substations,” said Monken. “It takes time.”
During that time, practically everything would stop; it would even impact our emergency responders. It has been estimated a grid failure could cost trillions of dollars.
Power companies have been working to protect against all threats says the Paul Sand, president of InfraGuard – an FBI sponsored private group working on infrastructure protections.
“They well understand what their vulnerabilities are and they’ve been working to address those over time,” said Paul Sand.
But Dr. Frankel says there is resistance from power companies over federal mandates and recommendations to increase security. The reason he says, “Money. I mean somebody is going to have to pay for this sort of stuff.”
Frankel says other threats include a natural storm like a solar flare — which could actually impact the entire country’s electricity. And the Congressional Commission he headed examined airborne nuclear explosions — again potentially devastating. Federal officials are working on beefing up mandatory security standards.