The Power of Diversity
The template for this new, more secure infrastructure-already replete with interconnected redundancy and a kind of intelligence-is the Internet. Its underlying packet-switching protocol allows data blocks such as e-mail messages to be chopped up, scattered through the network via whatever pathways are open, and reassembled by the addressee. The destruction of one or even several routes may slow down data but doesn’t prevent it from reaching its final destination. “The Internet was designed to survive nuclear war, so it will automatically route around disruptions. That’s a good model for thinking about some of the other things like electricity and the 911 system,” says James Andrew Lewis, a senior fellow and director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
The nation’s water supplies already share some of the Internet’s hardiness. Rare is the city that depends on a single source for its water. New York City, for instance, draws water from 19 reservoirs and three lakes in upstate New York via an interconnected network of tunnels and aqueducts. If terrorists were to blow up one aqueduct, the others would still flow. If they were to dump biological agents such as botulinum toxin into one reservoir, it could theoretically be cut off from the system until purified.
But much more could be done to keep drinking water safe. For example, “We could instrument our reservoirs [to detect contaminants] very cost effectively and very quickly,” suggests Roger McCarthy, chairman of Menlo Park, CA-based Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, which consults with industry and government on disaster response and readiness. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was granted $2.5 million in federal funding this year for research on bioterrorism, including the development of new technology for detecting biological agents in water (see “Detecting Bioterrorism,”). And researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM, are already field-testing tiny electronic sensors that can be lowered into reservoirs or underground wells to sniff for toxic chemicals. The sensors contain “chemiresistor” chips that measure changes in electrical resistance caused by volatile organic compounds; this data flows to collection stations where scientists can analyze the electrical signatures produced by the different compounds, identifying contaminants without having to transport actual water samples to the lab. The data can also be transmitted wirelessly to Web servers that would help spread the information to water safety officials around the country.
Ensuring that such information would get to the people who can use it is a key part of efforts to shore up the infrastructure. And as one of eight areas singled out by the federal government’s Critical Infrastructure Protection program-launched by President Bill Clinton in 1998 amid growing concerns about chemical, biological and computer-based attacks-the nation’s public water supplies will soon be linked to an Internet-accessible information-sharing and analysis center. Water utilities will pay a fee to join the exchange and use it to access and distribute data about contaminants found in the water supply as well as obtain intelligence reports from agencies monitoring terrorist threats.
The Washington, DC-based Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, in charge of implementing the system, is patterning it after similar centers already operating in banking and finance and information technology. Other information-sharing systems are planned for transportation, telecommunications, emergency services, electric power and oil and gas distribution-all with the goal of giving government and private industry timely information about events disruptive to operations. “We’ve got to figure out how to get effective cooperation between local, state, federal and private organizations,” says Randy Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, a nonprofit research organization in Arlington, VA, that consults with the government on national security issues. The centers, he says, mark a good start in that direction.
Cooperation and information sharing aren’t all that’s needed, however. Major parts of the infrastructure must be modernized so they can absorb and respond to disruptions more quickly and flexibly, observers say. The electrical grid, for example, needs new computerized controls to ensure that stresses on the system-whether in the form of a deliberate attack or simply a high-demand summer day-don’t lead to widespread outages.
The problem isn’t a lack of interconnections. While some power industry critics are calling for the construction of new transmission lines to add redundancy to the network, most regions of the nation already have several alternative paths for getting power from point A to point B. The real difficulty lies in controlling the flow of electricity. Today’s power systems can’t smoothly siphon electricity from overloaded lines to those with unused capacity, nor do they have any way of damping sudden disturbances such as voltage surges or selecting the best transmission path around a local outage. In short, as Lewis explains, the grid lacks the Internet’s inherent resilience: “If part of the grid goes down, the rest of the system doesn’t figure out how to route around it.” And in an emergency, that means engineers must scramble to reroute power manually, either from a control center or by making manual adjustments to transformers in the field. “It’s a dumb, antiquated system with no real architecture, so of course it’s vulnerable to local attack,” says McCarthy.
But here, too, help is on the way. Companies such as Siemens, ABB and Mitsubishi Electric are already testing new “power electronics” devices that can help automate the flow of electricity and smooth out unwanted fluctuations. One sophisticated switch, known as a gate turn-off thyristor, can detect lightning-speed spikes in power voltage and turn itself on and off fast enough to tame them and let controllers redirect excess power. Using these new power processors, which are being tested on key transmission lines that send power from upstate New York to Manhattan, engineers will be able to shunt power from one line to another at the touch of a button (see “A Smarter Power Grid,” TR July/August 2001). In emergency situations, the new devices should help grid managers switch seamlessly between primary and backup generating stations and transmission lines, minimizing the effects of attacks on individual facilities.