Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, warned in a 2011 speech that cyber attacks were escalating from causing disruptions to actual destructive strikes, including cyber attacks on hydroelectric dams.
Alexander provided what he said were indirect examples of two types of anticipated cyber attacks. The first was a cyber strike that could produce a cascading power failure like the August 2003 electrical power outage in the Northeast United States caused by a tree falling on a high-voltage power line
The second involved the catastrophic destruction of a water-driven electrical generator at Russia’s Sayano-Shushenskaya dam, near the far eastern city of Cheremushki, in August 2009. One of the dam’s 10 650-megawatt hydro turbine generators, weighing more than 1,000 tons, was mistakenly started by a computer operator 500 miles away.
As a result, the generator began spinning, rose 50 feet in the air, and exploded, killing 75 people and destroying eight of the remaining nine turbines at the dam.
“That’s our concern about what’s coming in cyberspace—a destructive element,” said Alexander in the September 2011 speech on cyberwarfare. He is also the director of the National Security Agency, the electronic spying agency.
In 2002 and 2006 the law was updated further in recognition that dams are part of critical U.S. infrastructure and require protection.
Security analysts have said that critical infrastructure—electrical power grids, financial networks, transportation controls, and industrial control systems—are increasingly vulnerable to cyber attack because of computer networks used to run them.
The security lapse highlights the Obama administration’s failure to upgrade cyber security and protect infrastructure despite a recent executive order seeking to improve security.
The dam database compromise also comes amid plans by the administration to expand hydroelectric power in the Untied States, which is considered a “green” renewable energy source, by 15 percent through upgrading dams.
The Energy Department said in a recent report that upgrading dams could produce 12 gigawatts of electricity without carbon emissions, Bloombergreported recently.
Energy officials analyzed 54,391 dams out of more than 80,000 dams that lack hydroelectric generators. Currently, some 2,500 dams produce hydroelectric power.
Increasing hydroelectric power would “help diversify our energy mix, create jobs and reduce carbon pollution nationwide,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.
President Barack Obama has set a goal of producing 80 percent of U.S. electrical power from so-called clean energy systems by 2035.
The Energy Department report said that adding generators to existing dams would be faster and less expensive than building new dams.