Black-Out Ops

In his brief summary of Jeffrey Leonard’s article in the new November/December issue of the Monthly on the imperative of shifting to relatively cheap, clean and plentiful natural gas to power much more of America’s electricity generating system, Paul Glastris emphasized the economic and environmental advantages of Leonard’s recommendations. But there’s a national security angle, too, as Leonard pointed out in discussing the increasing vulnerability to terrorist attacks of our outdated power grid.

Today this issue was underlined by the release of a previously classified 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences that suggests terrorist attacks (physical or “cyber”) on the power grid could wreak havoc and cost untold damage to life and property. Here’s how Bloomberg’s Brian Wingfield and Jeff Bliss explain the essentials of the report:

A terrorist attack on the U.S. power grid could be more destructive than superstorm Sandy, possibly costing hundreds of billions of dollars and leading to thousands of deaths, the National Academy of Sciences said.

While such an event probably wouldn’t kill people immediately, it could cause widespread blackouts for weeks or months, according to a recently declassified report released today by the Academy. If it occurred during extreme weather, heat stress or exposure to cold may lead to “hundreds or even thousands of deaths,” the authors of the study wrote. “An event of this magnitude and duration could lead to turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helplessness that would play directly into the hands of the terrorists,” they said.

While other entities have issued reports on electric-grid vulnerabilities, the study released today provides an unusually stark picture of what might happen if hackers, extremist groups, disgruntled employees or even energy companies sabotage the nation’s power network. It calls for the government to create a national inventory of portable generation equipment that can be used during such an event.

An attack “could be carried out by knowledgeable attackers with little risk of detection or interdiction,” it said.

Yikes. So if the idea of cleaner and cheaper electricity doesn’t grab you, maybe making our electrical generation system less vulnerable to mayhem might lead you to a close reading of Leonard’s fine piece.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.