Vulnerabilities of U.S. Infrastructure: We Need To Pay More Attention

U.S. infrastructure is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and sabotage and needs increased attention from all levels of government. It is an issue that first caught my attention in the 1980’s and continues to concern me. This blog is my first attempt to write down my thoughts on what I consider a scary subject.

‘Infrastructure’ is defined by Wikipedia as “basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function. The term typically refers to the technical structures that support a society, such as roads, bridges, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, and so forth.”

My first exposure to the complexities of maintaining infrastructure came in 1985 at a meeting of the Council of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). I was then a staff person at the NAS/NRC. Part of the discussion was in response to a Council member’s suggestion that the NAE undertake a study of the vulnerability of the U.S. power distribution network, in response to several instances of power blackouts. Pros and cons of such a study were discussed for about half an hour until it was agreed that the topic was too complicated to undertake a study. I remember that discussion like it was yesterday and have never stopped thinking about it. Hopefully, lots of people today are giving much more thought to that issue, along with other national vulnerabilities, but is it enough?

Let me be specific about my concerns:
– most of our electricity supply today comes from large, centralized power plants that are not terribly well protected if at all (nuclear power plants are protected, but how well is a good question), and most power is distributed over above-ground power lines that are subject to falling trees, storm damage, or sabotage. In my opinion it wouldn’t take much to disable a portion of our electrical grid that removes power from large numbers of people and other utility customers. This concern is exacerbated by our increasing computer control of the grid and its vulnerability to malevolent hacking. Given today’s level of protection against such hacking I am very worried.

Another vulnerability of our power system, one that has received some increasing attention of late, is the impact that an electromagnetic pulse from a solar flare could have on that system. The power line system can act as a giant antenna that captures solar flare energy that overloads the system and burns out power lines and transformers (Note: this happened in the 1860’s and burned out many telegraph lines). While physical components can be replaced it takes time, during which most people will be without power unless they have a backup generator. This is especially true for replacing the large power transformers in the system that are quite expensive and not routinely inventoried.

– another area of concern is the U.S. water supply. In fact, immediately after I learned of the 9/11/2001 attacks in New York City, and in my capacity as a DOE official, I immediately placed a call to one of DOE’s Power Administrations with responsibility for water reservoirs that serve as hydroelectric power as well as domestic water sources. My question was: What are you doing to make sure nobody is poisoning that water supply? We could not discuss that on the telephone, but it was my first thought about how else can a terrorist disrupt our country. I see our water supplies as poorly protected, with a critical need for sensors that can detect even small amounts of contamination. This latter topic is now getting some attention at DOE’s National Laboratories.

A disrupted water supply also has major implications for food production and public health, along with other potentially impacted areas of national life.

– I will end this blog by mentioning only one other area of concern out of the many others that could be discussed, telecommunications. Our communication systems today (telephone, internet, GPS, weather forecasting, ….) are highly dependent on solar-powered satellite links and any disruption to these links, whether inadvertent or deliberate, can disable critical aspects of our society. As a ‘renewable energy advocate’ I am particularly sensitive to the suggestion that we place large (multi-gigawaat) solar power satellites in synchronous orbit around the earth and beam the power down via microwaves. This concept has some strong advocates but I’m not one of them. While the cost of putting large solar arrays in orbit is an obvious concern, I worry most about the vulnerability of such a large array to technological failure (there are micrometeorites up there and things do break, don’t they) and deliberate military attack. One proposal I read about, and never got over, was to put a 10-gigawatt array in orbit above New York City, whose peak demand is about that size. In my opinion, and apparently that of many other people, that’s crazy and I don’t mind saying so.

Nevertheless, reasonably-sized earth-orbiting solar-powered satellites are an important part of today’s world and provide unique and invaluable services. Their vulnerability to failure due to wearing out, micrometeorites hits and solar flare radiation place many services on which we depend at risk.

I see this issue – the vulnerability of our infrastructure systems – as requiring significantly increased national attention, debate and financial support. Please join me in being part of this debate.


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