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The Hazards of ElectroMagnetic Terrorism

And why North American power plants should take note.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2005

Electromagnetic terrorism has huge implications for the international power industry. Manuel W. Wik, chief engineer and strategic specialist on future defense science and technology programs at the Defense Materiel Administration, Stockholm, writes:

"Electromagnetic terrorism (EM terrorism) is the intentional, malicious generation of electromagnetic energy, introducing noise or signals into electric and electronic systems, thus disrupting, confusing or damaging these systems for terrorist or criminal purposes. EM terrorism can be regarded as one type of offensive information warfare. EM terrorism needs to be considered more carefully in the future because information and information technology are increasingly important in everyday life." 1

Electronic components and circuits (such as microprocessors) are working at increasingly higher frequencies and lower voltages, and thus are increasingly more susceptible to electromagnetic interference (EMI). But the threat of intentional EMI is not limited to radio frequency (RF) energy. Yuri Parfenov and Vladimir Fortov of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for High Energy Densities recently experimented with injection of disturbances into power lines outside a building and found that the signals penetrate very easily and at a high enough voltage to cause damage to computers inside the building. 2 Additionally, radiated fields often become a conducted threat due to coupling of RF energy to exposed wires. Dr. A. Prishchipenko, member-correspondent of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, today heads research and practical development in this field in Russia.

An astonishing number of research projects devoted to EM terrorism are concerned with the EMI impact on objects such as communication systems, telecommunications, airplanes, and computers, but practically no projects are devoted to investigating resistance of microprocessor-based protective relays to EMI. Microprocessor-based protective relays obviously are more prone to EMI impact than electromechanical and even analog electronic ones. Because microprocessor relays are the combined protection systems uniting many kinds of protection functions, deliberate damage to even one such relay can lead to much heavier failure in power systems than would damage of the electromechanical relay.

Cyber Nightmare

In addition, microprocessor-based relays are prone to another form of modern remote terrorism besides electromagnetic terrorism: cyber-attacks.

Hackers' attacks are becoming terrorist weapons. Real cases of terrorist attacks of this kind usually are kept secret, but some already are known. For example, the special services of Iran for several months in 2003 attempted to damage the Israeli power system with the help of a hacker's attack. 3 Fortunately, the security service of the Israel Electric Corp. managed to block these attacks. Meanwhile, attacks of this kind to the main national computer systems of Israel have become more frequent, leading to a special subdivision within Israeli Counter-Intelligence and Internal Security Service (SHABAK) for countering such attacks.

But this problem is not only Israel's. The North American electric power network is vulnerable to electronic intrusions launched from anywhere in the world, according to studies by the White House, FBI, IEEE, North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), and National Security Telecommunications Advisory