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Don't Worry, Terrorists Won't Bring Down the U.S. Power Grid, Researchers Say

electrical towersOver the past few months, many politicians and national security experts have grown increasingly worried about what might happen if the U.S. power grid were ever to fall prey to a terrorist attack. Concerns first arose last March, when a scientific study published in the journal Safety Science suggested that even an attack on a small corner of the electrical network could unleash a domino effect across the country, effectively shutting down the entire grid. A subsequent paper published in the journal Nature legitimized these concerns, demonstrating that a similar cascade took down the Italian national power grid in 2003. Now, however, a new study has soundly refuted these claims, which the authors dismiss as "a bunch of hooey."

Authored by University of Vermont power grid expert Paul Hines and Penn State's Seth Blumsack, this latest study questions the mathematical model underpinning the apocalyptic scenarios outlined in both the Safety Science and Nature articles. These so-called topological models, Science Daily explains, are essentially graphs of interconnected networks, which are often used to map the flow of river networks, highway traffic and supply chains. According to this model, whenever one node in the network fails or changes, the next will fail, as well -- hence the aforementioned domino effect that many fear.

Hines and Blumsack, though, argue that these topological models don't account for the unique laws of physics that govern the flow of electricity. In their article, which was published in the journal Chaos, the researchers point out that the most susceptible parts of the grid are only those which see the most electricity flow, like major connectors or power generating stations. Given the complexity of the U.S. power grid, moreover, it's a bit simplistic, Hines argues, to conceive of the network as a series of dominoes. "Some modelers have gotten so fascinated with these abstract networks that they've ignored the physics of how things actually work -- like electricity infrastructure," Hines says, "and this can lead you grossly astray."

The ultimate takeaway, then, is that our power grid is probably more secure than we think, and perhaps too complex for terrorists to bring down in a single blow. And, if lawmakers buy Hines's and Blumsack's approach, they may end up saving a lot of money. "If the government takes these topological models seriously," Hines says, "and changes their investment strategy to put walls around the substations that have the least amount of flow -- it would be a massive waste of resources."

Tags: blackout, electricity, generator, infrastructure, physics, politics, power, PowerGrid, terrorism, TerroristAttacks, top, TopographicMap, TransmissionLine