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​US warns of 'imminent' cyberattack threat on electrical grid

An Energy Department report seeks new powers to deal with attacks and other emergencies.

Department of Energy

A report that Russian computer attackers had penetrated a Vermont electrical utility company may have turned out to be baseless, but the nation's grid is in "imminent danger" of cyberattacks, the Energy Department warned Friday.

"Widespread disruption of electric service because of a transmission failure initiated by a cyberattack at various points of entry could undermine U.S. lifeline networks, critical defense infrastructure and much of the economy; it could also endanger the health and safety of millions of citizens," the DOE said in a massive 494-page report. "Also, natural gas plays an increasingly important role as fuel for the nation's electricity system; a gas pipeline outage or malfunction due to a cyberattack could affect not only pipeline and related infrastructures, but also the reliability of the nation's electricity system."

To deal with the threat, Congress should update the Federal Power Act to grant the DOE emergency powers over the electrical grid, the report said.

Cyberattacks on electrical systems aren't an academic matter. Ukraine's grid was disrupted by cyberattacks attributed to Russia, which is engaged in territorial disputes with the country over eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. The US intelligence community also has blamed Russian cyberattacks for interfering in the US presidential election, with President Barack Obama retaliating with sanctions.