The Weakness of the U.S. Power Grid

Last Tuesday, the country of Yemen suffered a total blackout after al-Qaeda sabotaged key power lines in the eastern province of Marib. The power lines were attacked twice the day before.

The attack brings to mind on in which several transformers were knocked out using an AK-47. That incident may be tied to a larger operation.

It was April 15th, 2013 when two radical Islamist brothers set off two bombs near the finish line at the Boston Marathon.

Three people died and 264 were injured.

They later killed an MIT police officer in a separate incident. The media focused closely on these events and the ensuing manhunt.

But the media missed the terrorist attack that happened the next day on the other side of the country in California. And until recently, this attack has been kept secret.

On the evening of April 16th, 2013, a group of men attacked the power grid in San Jose. Video of the attack exists but anti-terrorism experts haven’t been able to identify the individuals or the group they belonged to and they’ve never been caught.

Experts say the attack, which included well-trained snipers shooting at and disabling transformers, may have been a test run for a bigger attack. During the course of the twenty-minute attack about 150 shots were fired.

Authorities said someone lifted tow heavy manhole covers along the Monterey Highway south of San Jose, climbed under the road, and cut AT&T fiber optic cables, temporarily knocking out 9-1-1 and regular phone service. About 15 minutes later, someone fired a high-powered rifle into a nearby PG&E substation, damaging the transformers and causing an oil leak.

This is not an isolated event, however.

In 2007, a worker driving into the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station 50 miles west of Phoenix was stopped at a checkpoint leading to the reactors, where security found a 5-inch pipe packed with firework explosives. The discovery sent the facility into a nearly seven-hour lockdown while security teams searched for additional explosives.

More than 3,000 people are employed at the plant, including several hundred contract workers brought in to help with upgrades on one of the three nuclear reactors, which make Palo Verde the largest power plant in the United States.

Two of the three reactors at Palo Verde were not in operation.

One was in a refueling stage and another was scheduled to return to the power grid the day following the discovery of the pipe bomb. The third reactor was fully operational.

At the time, authorities said the incident did not seem to be an act of terrorism.

Last month, The Department of Homeland Security reported that a U.S. public utility was the target of a cyber-attack, which compromised its control system network. DHS did not identify the utility in its report.

The agency did say hackers launched the attack through an Internet portal that enabled workers to reach the utility’s control systems. It said the system used a simple password mechanism that could be compromised using a technique known as “brute forcing,” where hackers digitally force their way in by trying various password combinations.

DHS also reported another hacking incident involving a control system server connected to “a mechanical device.” The agency provided few details about that case, except to say the attacker had access over an extended period, though no attempts were made to manipulate the system.

Currently, the FBI is investigating whether a makeshift bomb placed next to a 50,000-gallon diesel tank at a Nogales, Arizona power station last week has any connection to a suspicious incident this year at another substation owned by the same company. The plant is owned by UniSource Energy Services, a subsidiary of UNS Energy, which is also the parent company of Tucson Electric Power.

The attack caused minor damage and no injuries. Contrary to initial accounts, the bomb was placed under the valve of the diesel tank and ignited, charring the steel tank, but failed to explode.

The Valencia Generating Station is a small “peaking” facility, used only during the hottest hours of summer or the coldest hours of winter, when electricity demand spikes. The adjacent substation, however, is important for balancing the regional power supply.

Police said they believe the saboteurs got into the substation sometime Tuesday evening, when maintenance workers locked it and left, and Wednesday morning, when workers returned to check the plant.

The following day, law-enforcement officials said the FBI was looking at past suspicious incidents in the area, including one near Sahuarita, north of Nogales. In that incident, someone was reported to be trying to cut power lines.

Last year DHS responded to 256 cyber incident reports, more than half of them in the energy sector.

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