Russia could cause ‘thousands and thousands’ of deaths through energy grid attack
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The defence secretary has issued the starkest warning yet that electricity distribution system could be targeted by Moscow, but one security expert urges caution, saying there has been no ‘explicit threat’.
Yet another terrifying warning that Russia could knock out the National Grid in a lethal strike has been issued, this time by the Defence Secretary - but the UK government has issued no advice stating what residents should do should the lights go out.
Gavin Williamson’s warning that Russia could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths in Britain through an attack on the island’s electricity distribution system comes just days after the head of the National Cyber Security Centre appeared to suggest an attack of this nature was inevitable.
E&T has asked the Ministry of Defence (MoD) what advice officials had for ordinary residents about how to survive this type of bombardment.
An MoD spokesman said only that the department stood squarely by Williamson’s comments, adding that energy security was the responsibility of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has not yet responded to a request for comment from E&T.
Meanwhile, when asked by E&T, a spokesman for the National Grid said: “Given our vital role in connecting people to their energy supplies, we take our responsibility very seriously. National Grid has processes in place that are aligned with industry best practice and assessed by government and regulatory agencies.”
Nick Hunn, an expert in the electricity network, said a potentially fatal implosion of the grid “will probably happen” in future, but cautioned that it could just as easily be “self-inflicted” through bungling infrastructure work on the British side.
However, he added: “There’s a good reason for the scaremongering that’s going on, which is that there has been very little planning or thought that has gone into this.
“It’s one of those issues that keeps people involved in this field awake at night, because if the grid goes down, you’re either lucky and you’ll find there is a way of getting everything back up again and everything carries on, or if it’s been damaged in such a way that a lot of transformers have blown, you’re looking at a year or so wait for a replacement.
“It’s extremely vulnerable. Nobody is really doing anything in terms of contingency planning because it's one of those problems that, should it happen, nobody quite knows what to do.”
An attack of the type described by the Defence Secretary would result in a situation in which “you lose lighting, you lose heating, you lose communications and you lose most transport,” he said.
He added: “Water will go, because the pumps will go, and how do you feed the population with no transport? There are ways of keeping some of this stuff going, but it’s only going to be a matter of days before everything runs out and you start to have queues. That’s when you start to get riots and anarchy.”
If Russia does attack Britain, attribution may prove difficult as they could launch a cyber strike via a proxy.
In his comments to the Daily Telegraph Gavin Williamson said Moscow had been looking at the UK's critical infrastructure such as power stations and interconnectors that allow the transfer of electricity across borders.
According to the paper, Mr Williamson speculated the threat could be carried out in the form of a cyber attack from undersea activity or a missile.
He said: “The plan for the Russians won’t be for landing craft to appear in the South Bay in Scarborough and off Brighton Beach.
”They are going to be thinking: ‘How can we just cause so much pain to Britain?’
”‘Damage its economy, rip its infrastructure apart, actually cause thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths, but actually have an element of creating total chaos within the country’.”
Dr Samuel Greene, Director of the King’s College Russia Institute, urged caution.
He told E&T: “There is a tension between the UK, as member of NATO and as part of the sanctions regime against Russia, and Russia itself. There is military posturing that goes along as part of that and there are various aspects of what has sometimes been referred to as hybrid warfare or information warfare that goes on, too.
“I am not aware of, nor do I think there has been, an explicit threat from the Russian side to any aspect of British infrastructure, including the electricity grid.”
He added: “There are concerns over what would happen if the current cold conflict with Russia were to escalate and I think that’s what seems to be driving the general message from the MoD that more funding is needed.
“The reality is that that’s a message people in and around the military establishment have been putting out for some time.”