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A well targeted attack against a small power grid subnetwork might result in a cascading failure across the entire US West Coast electricity grid, according to a Chinese academic.

A team led by Jian-Wei Wang, a network analyst at China's Dalian University of Technology, discovered the potential weakness after using publicly available data to model the West Coast US electricity supply networks and its components. Cascading failures led to the August 2003 blackout in the north-east US.

The Chinese team expected to discover that attacks against highly loaded networks carried the greater damage potential. The group analysed the power loading and the connections of each grid sub-network to work out the conditions under which they would trip-out under a variety of failure scenarios.

If backbone systems were taken out, conventional thinking suggests, demand would swamp smaller networks. However the team actually found that, in the right circumstances, taking out a lightly used sub-network first might have a greater effect, the New Scientist reports.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is reportedly poring over the report, released last November but overlooked (by the media, at least) until last week.

John Verrico, a DHS technology spokesman, told the New Scientist that countermeasures are already in development. "Our engineers are working on a self-limiting, high-temperature superconductor technology which would stop and prevent power surges generated anywhere in the system from spreading to other substations. Pilot tests in New York City may be ready as soon as 2010."

The Chinese study comes at a time of heightened concern about the robustness of power distribution networks. Reports in April suggested that spies from China and Russia had infiltrated the US electrical grid and planted malware that could sabotage key components.

Recent generations of SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) systems - used by utilities and manufacturing plants to control systems - are internet enabled, creating additional attack scenarios against power-distribution systems outside of physical sabotage. For example, exploit code against a particular SCADA vulnerability was published as a module within the Metasploit penetration testing tool kit last September. Network worms also pose a risk.

Reports of cyber attacks on utility systems that actually cause any damage are infrequent but not unprecedented.

In Russia, malicious hackers reportedly managed to hijack the controls of a gas pipeline back in 1999. Elsewhere, the Slammer worm disrupted the corporate network at Ohio's inactive Davis-Besse nuclear plant and borked a safety monitoring system for nearly five hours in January 2003.

Problems can also arise as the result of IT equipment failure. A malfunctioning control device forced operators to manually shut down the reactor at Browns Ferry nuclear power plant after two water recirculation pumps failed in August 2006, for example. ®

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