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With political tensions high and climate issues threatening our planet, it’s never been more important to keep a close eye on our energy infrastructure. Reliant on out-of-date systems that require extensive repairs and maintenance, America’s energy infrastructure represents a vulnerability — one that our enemies may take advantage of. Is our current cybersecurity strong enough to prevent an enemy cyberattack, or does this weakness constitute a dire threat?
America’s Current Energy Infrastructure
To analyze this threat appropriately, we have to dive deep into the current state of our infrastructure. Natural disasters have always been viewed as a primary threat to our energy systems, but recent events have highlighted the potential harm of cyberattacks. As a result, Rick Perry, U.S. Secretary of Energy, spearheaded a request to review the resilience and reliability of the grid.
This request was met with backlash, specifically from advocates of renewable energy who point to evidence that the amount of clean energy currently produced in the U.S. can support the grid. While coal and other “dirty” energy sources are considered more stable, groups such as the American Council on Renewable Energy have published reports that detail the value of renewable energy sources.
Breaches in Security
Concerns over this hot-button issue stem from recent cyberattacks on crucial components of the energy infrastructure. In the last two months, several nuclear power plants have been targeted by unidentified hackers, which has spurred investigations by both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation, which oversees a nuclear power plant in Kansas, was identified as the victim of at least one recent cyberattack. Though the motive and severity of the attack are still unclear, a report from The New York Times highlights one worrisome potential scenario: hackers could gain direct access to computer systems at nuclear plants and instigate toxic waste spills, explosions, fires or other disasters.
The Department of Homeland Security states that cyberattackers historically target the energy sector for espionage and to disrupt systems during hostile attacks. With political tensions high, Russia-linked hacking groups are the chief suspects in the recent attacks. Specifically, the tactics used in the breach at Wolf Creek bear heavy resemblance to those used by Russian hacking group Energetic Bear. This group is suspected of having conducted cyberattacks against elements of the global energy infrastructure as far back as 2012. A leaked National Security Agency intelligence report details the extent of Russia’s alleged interference during the 2016 U.S. election, which could have had a material effect on the eventual outcome. The report confirms at least one Russian military intelligence attack on a U.S. voting software supplier.
A Plan for Change
This threat of hacking is worrisome, but our energy infrastructure has been resolute enough to deter most cyberattacks throughout the years. The Department of Homeland Security has declared the threat to public safety to be minimal, as hacks have been limited to administrative and business networks.
While this news is comforting, we have a long way to go to eliminate threats entirely. The United States’ energy infrastructure is strong, but it is not advancing anywhere near as fast as hacking and espionage technologies. This means that an investment needs to be made in the modernization of systems connected to the grid. To stay ahead of the curve, we must begin improving our infrastructure now, which is only possible through the collaboration of state, federal, public and private agencies.