FPC Blog

US Critical National Infrastructure: pitfalls and solutions in the utility and energy sectors


United States’ critical national infrastructure has long been a topic of concern within key infrastructure and homeland security circles. CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) defines critical infrastructure under the USA Patriot Act of 2001 as any “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual to the United States that the incapacity of destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.”   The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2020 warned that both domestic and foreign terrorists have developed “specific plans” to attack the US energy and utilities sector as the US electric grid has been found to be one of the most vulnerable of critical national infrastructure.

Fast forward two years since the study and domestic attacks are now infiltrating our energy and utilities sectors. We witnessed truly concerning domestic attacks on the US electric grid in late 2022. On December 3, 2022 Moore County N.C. experienced a shooting attack on two main electrical substations which left at least 40,000 people without power for weeks. The attack was premeditated as the ensuing FBI investigation found structured markings for targeted gunfire. While the electric grid attack in North
Carolina was widely publicized, similar attacks in Oregon and Washington state went almost unknown. Late November 2022 heralded at least six attacks to Oregon’s electric grid involving firearms. If local gunmen can incapacitate county grids, imagine what a full-fledged terrorist attack could

In September 2022 I attended Keiser University’s Women in Tech lecture The Effect of Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse on Critical U.S. Infrastructure by James Todd Lovelace. What I learned was very concerning. Todd Lovelace gave a very detailed 8 day run down of what would happen to the United States based on a foreign missile attack aimed at the main US power grid. In brief:

  • The scenario presented hides a Shahab-3 missile in one of our massive US coal barges that have daily/weekly/monthly routes through Midwestern waterways.
    • This missile has been commonly used by North Korea and Iran. Once the coal barge is opened the missile is easily shot into Midwestern sky to attack the heart of the US.
    • Quantitative models show a blast wave B16b-GIC attack in the Midwest will immediately bring down the entire US power grid.
    • Also, we have 10 major nuclear power plants located in the Chicago area which was simulated as the highest target range.
  • Lovelace presented a day 1 to day 8 scenario of how North Florida would be affected by the missile attack 1000 miles away in the Midwest.
  • Day 1 – The US grid breaks into small grid islands. Possibly 60% of these islands will remain defunct.
    • Generators only last up to three days and will be used for large critical institutions. Approximately 80% of cell towers will crash. We will need to fall back on coal for fuel. Gas and hybrid cars will run out of fuel and will need to be mass parked by day 3.
  • Day 8 – This is one week after a major terrorist attack:
    • Our digital infrastructure which we as a Nation and a global community depend on is our “single point of failure.” Almost all manual devices have been computerized in our modern time. Cars, railroads, banks, telecommunication, workforce. And digital will stay failed possibly for 30+ days.
    • Hospitals need mass utility to run let alone computerized options. Expect huge increases in mortality especially for infants and the elderly.
    • Without telecommunication fire/rescue/police will not be able to receive civilian calls. The National Guard is needed mainly to protect existing energy, nuclear and chemical sectors from further attack.
    • The US Dams Sector is the only silver lining during an attack, according to Lovelace.
      • Our hydro-electric systems have been proven to withstand the B16b-GIC waves and will most likely be the mechanism to resuscitate electric power grid restoration in the medium term, after coal fuel.

From a policy perspective it bodes well to understand whether CISA’s Partnership Advisory Council works at a grassroots level with county/state governments as well as local businesses for infrastructure improvement via public private partnerships. If we truly had a working partnership to plan,
test and monitor protection of the US power grid across state dictates, domestic gunfire would not be able to bring county and state grids to a halt. More is needed from our infrastructure officials to ensure that the United States can withstand both wide scale domestic and foreign attack.

We would also suggest a new take on an old energy source which would be very lucrative to develop. As depicted in Todd Lovelace’s lecture, we as a nation will have no choice to resort to coal energy when digital and electric energy fails. We know that coal energy use has been frowned upon
by environmentalists, yet it is essential to critical national infrastructure recovery. Yet what if we harnessed and invested in coal power in the form of synthetic industrial diamonds for energy fallback? Europe is currently on the cutting edge of renewable electric energy using both real and artificial
industrial diamonds. Energy Industry Review considers industrial diamond energy as having “superior electronic and thermal capacities [with] many possibilities in power transmission.”

For purposes of critical national infrastructure protection physics has proven that to withstand an electric voltage of 1K V, a regular converter requires 100 microns while lab industrial diamonds require only 1 micron. US R&D public/private investment would benefit from placing emphasis on
the manufacture of synthetic industrial diamond converters as a solid enhancement to the energy fallback on its predecessor coal during times of dire national power and energy crises.