A Power Blackout Attack Can Cause CBRN Events
The thought of a power blackout is on the top of many Americans' minds as the subject of power grid attacks, power grid outages, cyberattacks, rampant inflation, and supply chain issues causes many to raise the specter of concern. What many may have never considered, however, is that a power outage doesn't just have the potential to spoil all the food in your fridge. It also can cause a CBRN event.
But is there a history of this? Is this a valid threat? And, if so, are there things that we can do to better protect ourselves and our families?
Let's dive in.
Table of Contents
Is a Power Blackout a Valid Threat for CBRN Events?
Could a Blackout Cause a Radiation Emergency?
Are Blackouts a Part of Asymmetric Warfare?
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a Power Blackout a Valid Threat for CBRN Events?
Sometimes theory is all you have. You think something terrible could happen if X happens, but X has never happened before, so you can't be sure. Such is the case with much of the talk of a cyber attack or electromagnetic pulse weapons. We think they could cause much potential damage to things, but we're not sure to what extent.
Because of this, you should turn to history to see if it has anything to say. And we have a lot of source material to draw from regarding the possibility of power outages causing a CBRN event.
Consider the following...
July 24, 1994, Pembroke, United Kingdom
A lightning strike over the Pembroke refinery here caused a 0.4-second power outage. This, in turn, caused a series of pumps and overhead "fin-fan coolers" to trip repeatedly, causing the pressure safety valves of the central crude column to open up. This dominoed until it culminated in an explosion that caused massive damage at the refinery. The United Kingdom lost 10% of its total refining capacity as a result.
Jonathan Billinger / Popton Oil Refinery, Rhoscrowther, Pembrokeshire / CC BY-SA 2.0 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
July 1999, Gramercy, Louisiana
A power outage here resulted in releasing a "highly corrosive caustic material." A total of 29 people were injured due to the chemical release.
May 2001, Richmond, California
After a truck crashed into a utility pole, a power outage resulted throughout the surrounding area. This caused a release of sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide into the environment. Somewhere between 50-100, people had to seek medical attention due to these chemical releases.
Sulfur dioxide escaping from a vent in Hawaii. While naturally occurring, sulfur dioxide is known for causing respiratory issues. (Image courtesy of Brocken Inaglory at Wikimedia Commons. )
January 2015. Millard Refrigerated Services
After a 7-hour power outage, this facility experienced "hydraulic shock." This resulted in releasing 32,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia into the atmosphere. The gas cloud traveled a quarter of a mile to where approximately 800 contractors worked to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They were subsequently exposed to the gas. A total of 143 offsite contractors and nine nearby ship crew members reported exposure to the gas. Thirty-two people were admitted to the hospital as a result, and four of them ended up in intensive care.
December 2016. Plaquemine DOW Chemical Factory
A power "interruption" at this facility caused "a small chlorine leak," resulting in all non-essential workers being evacuated from the plant. No significant injuries were reported, but 14 employees sought medical treatment at the Plaquemine Ochsner Medical Complex.
2017, Hurricane Harvey
After knocking out the power and flooding a Crosby, Texas, chemical factory, a large explosion occurred at the Arkema Chemical Factory. Residents of the area would later take the company to court for alleged exposure to toxins after the blast.
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (Image courtesy of 2C2K Photography at Wikimedia Commons. )
November 2020. Ascend Performance Materials
After the power failed, 692 pounds of nitric oxide and 2408 pounds of nitrogen dioxide were released into the atmosphere. No injuries were reported.
2021, Hurricane Ida
Ida deserves its very own category, as she caused several chemical issues directly attributed to power outages. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality stated that they had lost roughly a third of their monitoring stations due to the blackout. This meant the public was much less likely to be warned in time should dangerous chemicals be released into the atmosphere.
Post-Hurricane Ida. (Image courtesy of The National Guard at Wikimedia Commons. )
At about this same time, CF Industries of the Ascension Parish had two storage tanks that apparently caught fire and began to release anhydrous ammonia. (Thankfully, hurricane winds suddenly put these fires out.)
During this time, the Phillips 66 in St. Charles Parish reported a propylene and isobutane leak. It was also reported that a Plaquemine storage tank also began to leak ethylene dichloride. And the cherry on top was a Royal Dutch Shell refinery releasing an unknown amount of hydrogen.
February 2022, Westlake, Louisiana
A power outage here caused a release of pentachloroethane from a nearby chemical plant. This chemical is known for causing irritation of the skin, lungs, and eyes.
July 2022. Eastman Chemical Company
After a power outage at 10 AM, there was a "released substance" at the Eastman Chemical Company.
July 2022, Baytown, Texas. Chevron Phillips Chemical Company
A power outage here caused heavy smoke and "flaring" to be seen from this facility. Authorities stated that flaring is a perfectly safe and ordinary means of preventing dangerous chemical releases into the environment, but it did cause some concern amongst the local residents.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
In 2000 alone, 240 chemical releases in the United States were directly attributable to power outages.
As you can see, there is plenty of historical precedent of something as simple as a power outage that releases substances into the air that can harm human health. But aside from chemical releases, are there other concerns we must have with blackouts?
What about radiation?
Could a blackout cause a nuclear reactor meltdown?
Once more, we don't have to look far to find the truth.
Could a Blackout Cause a Radiation Emergency?
We'll start with the caveat that according to the EMP Commission Report, the risk of a nuclear accident due to a blackout is very low. The report notes that several fail-safe policies have been implemented in American reactors to ensure no "American Chernobyl" occurs every time a drunk driver hits a telephone pole.
For example, in February 2021, the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station was temporarily shut down due to a power outage. No radiation was released, and there were no disastrous consequences. In 2021, you probably never even heard of this happening with the power grid.
(Image courtesy of The South Texas Nuclear Generating Station)
This supports the findings of the EMP Commission Report.
However, with that being said, we can't deny the case of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
In 2011, after a tsunami hit Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor lost power. Several of the backup emergency generators (what the 2009 EMP Commission Report cites explicitly as being the reason that nuclear reactors are safe during a power outage) lost power, cooling systems then failed, fuel rods partially melted down, and radiation was released. This was all further compounded when built-up hydrogen gas exploded on March 12, March 14, and March 15.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
“…it is physically feasible and safe for nuclear plants to operate in such a circumstance [without multiple reliable power supply sources] since they all have emergency generation at site.” – The EMP Commission Report, Chapter 2
Post-explosion in Fukushima (Image courtesy of Digital Globe at Wikimedia Commons. )
Approximately 47,000 people were evacuated from their homes, a no-fly zone was put over the reactor, and much radiation was released into the atmosphere and ocean.
So can a power outage lead to a radiation emergency? While there are fail-safes put into place to keep this from happening, as Japan witnessed in 2011, sometimes the perfect storm arrives, and when that happens, the consequences can be severe.
A radiation emergency can most certainly be one of the results.
Are Blackouts a Part of Asymmetric Warfare?
In 1999, Colonel Qiao Liang and Colonel Wang Xiangsui of the People's Liberation Army (China) wrote a military manual titled Unrestricted Warfare. In this text, the authors argue that modern warfare no longer relies on conventional weaponry. Guns, fighter jets, tanks – they're all still a part of war – and always will be – but the Chinese make the case that war is simply the act of bending an opponent to your will. As such, unconventional weapons are now acceptable means of waging war.
You have won if you can use unconventional means while still accomplishing the same purpose. Liang and Xiangsui point out that media, finances, culture, and electronics – just about everything – can be turned into a weapon against an enemy nation.
They specifically mention buying majority stakes in an enemy nation's media industry, genetic warfare, leading cultural trends in an enemy state in a way that benefits the aggressor, "smuggling warfare," and the widespread use of hacking and cyberattacks.
And yes, even a cyberattack causes blackouts.
EMP-style weapons are explicitly mentioned in the text (page 20), but there are other means that the authors argue one would have at their disposal.
A cyber attack into a SCADA system would most likely be a fair act of war. Still, they also would view targeting a nation's ability to purchase fuel to run emergency generators as a viable alternative.
As The EMP Commission Report pointed out in Chapter 2, "Essentially every aspect of American society requires electrical power to function. Contemporary US society is neither structured nor has the means to provide for the needs of nearly 300 million Americans without electricity."
The modern world is essentially the same with regard to infrastructure. If you travel to Europe, you will find the same systems in place as in America. There will be homes with lightbulbs, and refrigerators, hospitals with electrically-driven surgery equipment, and medications requiring refrigeration. And this is where we can once more turn to precedent.
What did we see before the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
We saw massive cyberattacks against Ukrainian infrastructure. Malware was installed on Ukrainian websites, data was wiped from government sites, Odessan infrastructure was compromised on February 14, the Ukrainian defense ministry was hit by a DDoS attack, critical infrastructure networks in Sumy were found with Russian actors present, destructive malware was sent over called HermeticWiper was used throughout the country. Banking sites were hit with DDoS attacks.
What did we see before the Russian invasion of Georgia?
We saw massive DDOS cyberattacks against Georgian infrastructure. News, government, and financial websites throughout Georgia were targeted, with 35% of Georgia's online networks being impacted.
A DDoS attack. (Image courtesy of Nasabuyn at Wikimedia Commons.)
What did we see when Estonia took down Soviet statues in 2007?
We saw a massive cyberattack against all Estonian websites. Approximately a million "zombie" computers engaged in DDoS attacks nationwide, impacting email abilities, telecommunications, "essential infrastructures," and virtually every government website.
Ukraine has a history of having its electrical grid knocked out via cyberattack. In December 2015, a cyber attack left 230,000 people without power for 1-6 hours. A year later, another cyberattack left a fifth of Kiev without power for an hour. In June 2017, Ukraine saw more of the same. Estonia has seen its fair share of this as well.
Nation-states absolutely engage in cyber warfare against one another.
With this in mind, it's concerning when you hear reports about Chinese-installed kill switches found on American transformers, leading to other transformers mysteriously being swept away to national laboratories after the discovery, and even a short-lived executive order that later banned Chinese involvement in the power grid.
History has already shown that a cyberattack is all needed to bring down an opponent's electrical grid. But when you add an actual piece of hardware to the equation, you add an extra layer of convenience to the power outages.
The stage is set. It doesn't have to be a squirrel playing around on a transformer or a truck crash to cause a problem (though those are surprisingly mundane sources of power outages as well). You already have nation-state actors that are more than capable and willing to turn the lights out in an enemy nation so that they can "bend their opponent to their will." History has proven this.
Could that, in turn, lead to CBRN events?
Well, as we've already seen, the answer is a definitive 'yes.'
A NOTE OF INTEREST
The Moore County, North Carolina substation attack was less than 30 miles from Fort Bragg, one of the largest military installations in the world.
The Graham, Washington substation power grid attacks occurred 30 minutes from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The Clackamas, Oregon, power grid attack occurred 17 minutes from the Portland Air National Guard Base.
Before We Turn the Lights Out
The point here isn't to terrify anybody, and we don't want you to leave reading this piece feeling abject terror every time from here on out that there's a power outage in your area. Statistically, the risk of a CBRN event following a power outage is low, and at least as of 2020, the average American experiences eight hours of power interruptions per year. The odds are that you didn't have a toxic cloud of chlorine gas engulf your house then.
A power outage. (Image courtesy of Jen at Wikimedia Commons.)
So, we don't want you to walk away from this piece feeling we're saying, "We guarantee you this is going to happen if the lights go out due to a blizzard." We want you to glean that the threat of a CBRN release from a blackout is real.
Suppose you live near a chemical plant or some other business that you have reason to believe could be the source of dangerous chemicals accidentally being released. In that case, this is something to think about some base level of preparedness for.
You may not live in utter fear of your house burning down daily, yet you still have insurance to protect your finances should that happen. Why not apply the same thought to the potential problem of blackout-induced CBRN disasters?
The fact of the matter is that America has recently experienced a spate of strange emergencies that have negatively impacted many people. The Ohio train derailment has the potential to poison millions of acres of American soil with deadly chemicals for generations. There have been many other headlines of late detailing strange fires, derailments, and explosions.
Could some of these events result in CBRN disasters? Absolutely. Do they seemingly happen just about anywhere? Ask East Palestine, Ohio, a town with less than 5000 people before the derailment. This author believes that that town will never recover, and people will leave and never want to return to the chemical wasteland their home has become.
East Palestine, Ohio, pre-train crash. (Image courtesy of 636Buster at Wikimedia Commons.)
So if you were to suddenly get an alert on your phone or TV that there had been some type of toxic substance released, or if you were to learn that you need to conduct an emergency evacuation, would you be able to protect your lungs while you were doing so?
A surgical mask is not going to cut it. These do not filter out poisonous gasses. You need proper respiratory protection for these environments, which is where MIRA Safety comes into play. Our CM-6M gas masks offer full-face protection and maximum visibility, and when paired with one of our NBC-77 filters, they will do what it takes to keep your lungs safe. We even offer options that will help to protect your kids and pets as you head for safer ground.
If you're concerned about the possibility of a radiation leak, we recommend that you give our Geiger-2 Dosimeter a look. This pocket dosimeter can easily be carried on your person with minimal fuss and will provide an audible alert should it detect dangerously high radiation levels. It only needs 20 seconds to give you an accurate reading (some other dosimeters on the market take several minutes). It also uses the same SBM20-01 Geiger Muller tube that military-grade Geiger counters use.
Speaking of which, our gear is manufactured to military standards and is used by CBRN units in several different armies worldwide. The US Department of Defense, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Latvia use MIRA Safety gear (among others). If soldiers can use our equipment to stay safe from chemical weapons, you can most certainly use them to protect yourself against blackout CBRN disasters as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
A blackout is simply another name for a power outage or power grid outage.
Rolling blackouts are purposefully orchestrated power outages that power companies perform to keep there being too much draw on the electrical grid. So, if Los Angeles were currently needing X amount of energy, and some fear drawing that amount of energy could be dangerous to the grid itself, then the power company may enact a rolling blackout where they cause select regions of Los Angeles to be without power for short periods in an attempt to protect the electrical grid itself.
These are typically orchestrated so that each section with a blackout only experiences power grid interruptions for short periods. However, even something as fast as a one-hour blackout can lead to severe inconveniences, mainly if you work online, have a small retail store, or the like.
If you haven't received any notice of impending rolling blackouts, the most likely causes of a blackout are equipment problems, squirrels, weather conditions, falling trees, storms, and scheduled equipment replacement. An interesting infographic can be found here that will help you determine the most likely cause of a blackout in your geographic region.
This largely depends on the metric you want to use and is harder to calculate than you think. Do war-related power outages count? What about outages in nations with limited electricity to begin with? We can say that in 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, it is said that 6.1 billion hours of power were lost. This is considered to be the largest blackout ever recorded.
If we're looking at developed countries, it's been said that the United States has more blackouts than any other. If we're looking at the world, Pakistan has more power outages than any other (even more than Afghanistan!)
It's generally a good idea to call your electricity provider to let them know when your power has gone out. Most power companies provide easy-to-use online reporting forms that you can use to quickly report a grid outage.
Substations are areas where electricity's voltage is stepped up or down in transformers so that the end destination receives the voltage it needs. If, for example, you were to attempt to use your refrigerator from a source that had 100x the voltage that your fridge can safely use, you would quickly end up with a destroyed fridge, at least, and potentially an explosion or house fire at worst.
These facilities are scattered throughout the entire country. You likely pass one or two of them as you drive to work every morning.
There are a lot of variables at play in answering this question. What caused the outage, the extent of any possible damage, road conditions, and the number of employees available to fix the power grid outage are all factors that apply here. Most American power outages last roughly 212 minutes, though.
Having plenty of food, access to clean water, and staying warm are the critical factors in preparing for a power grid and/or cyberattack. For more information on general levels of preparedness, we recommend checking out this article here.
Surviving a prolonged blackout will largely depend on the preparation that was taken beforehand. Do you have the medications that your family needs? Do you have enough food? Do you have the means to defend yourself, get plenty of clean water from the nearby creek, and know how to handle basic first aid needs?
A prolonged blackout turns every day into a camping trip. But provided you can work around food, water, and warmth, you'll do well to survive an extended blackout.