Beef Up Security at Power Plant

Senator Vulnerable to Terrorism

In the wake of recent revelations that a group of terrorists armed with nothing more than rifles were almost able to take down a major part of the nation’s power grid, Sen. Charles E. Schumer revealed that the federal government currently gives the electric utility industry group total veto power over any proposed security regulations for the components of the electric grid.

In light of this, Schumer called on two federal agencies-the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-to draft and enforce tougher security standards that Congress can then give the power of law, even over the objections of the industry group.

Schumer’s push comes after it was recently revealed that multiple snipers took down 17 transformers at a Silicon Valley power plant-while standing outside the security perimeters-which nearly resulted in power being cut to one of the nation’s leading economic centers. That indicates that a group of determined gunmen, armed with rifles, could bring down major portions of the electric grid, or even the entire thing.

The senator warned that safety measures are lacking at power plants nationwide, and without proper safeguards, a similar attack could be carried out in New York City, potentially decimating residents and local businesses. Developing tougher standards would ensure that the electric grid across the city, state and country are protected from future threats.

“Sometimes we take it for granted, but our entire way of life is dependent on the reliability of our power plants and our electric grid. It powers our homes and keeps the lights on at our businesses,” said Schumer. “Any potential weakness in this critical infrastructure is troubling and should be addressed immediately. The fact that these snipers were able to inflict so much damage-and that they are still out there-means we need to re-think the way we implement security measures at our power plants. This is not something that we can rely on the utility industry to do. Instead, we need DHS to bring its security expertise to the table, and FERC to bring its energy expertise, to devise tough security measures that will shield our power plants from this type of brazen attack moving forward.”

On Apr. 16, 2013, a group of snipers destroyed 17 transformers at an electrical substation in San Jose, California. This attack, which lasted almost 20 minutes, nearly brought down power to all of Silicon Valley. The perpetrators have not yet been caught. This attack underscores how vulnerable our entire electrical grid is to domestic and foreign terrorism, and the need for enhanced safety measures.

Currently, in order for any safety measure to be implemented nationwide, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a non-profit group made up of representatives from the utility industry, would have to develop and approve the standards. Once the standards have been developed, it would then be on the federal agency, FERC, to approve them. FERC, however, cannot develop or enact any rules without NERC initiating them.

According to Schumer, the fact that the industry is self-regulating may be preventing the necessary security measures from being enacted.

Instead of relying on NERC to self-regulate on this critical security issue, Schumer is asking for DHS, which has a clear mandate to protect U.S. citizens and infrastructure, to work in conjunction with FERC, which has an expertise in all forms of energy, to come up with security standards that work for the energy industry, but also succeed in protecting our physical infrastructure. Once FERC and DHS draft security standards, Congress could then give them the force of law.

According to the Wall Street Journal article that revealed the attack on the Silicon Valley substation, the sniper attack in April 2013 was not the first time the U.S. electrical system has been targeted by terrorists. The article states that there were 274 major instances of vandalism or deliberate damage to U.S. power plants in the past three years. The article also mentions that terrorist attacks on power plants are a major problem overseas, with 3,000 attacks having been carried out on power lines, towers or substations between 1996 and 2006.

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