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Britain four meals away from anarchy if cyber attack takes out power grid

Issued: 2018-03-17

British cities would be uninhabitable within days and the country is only a few meals from anarchy if the National Grid was taken down in a cyber attack or solar storm, disaster and security experts have warned.

Modern life is so reliant on electricity that a prolonged blackout would quickly lead to a loss of water, fuel, banking, transport and communications that would leave the country “in the Stone Age”.

The warning comes weeks after the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said Russia had been spying on the UK’s energy infrastructure and could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths if it crippled the power supply.

America this week blamed the Russian government for a campaign of cyber attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the US power grid.

Energy and security experts say a cyber attack is one of a number of so-called “black sky hazards” that have the potential to knock out power for days, weeks or even longer across large parts of a country, or even continent.

“I think that is a risk that is very real in the UK and it’s also neglected and that sort of scenario could happen anytime, it could happen tomorrow,” said Julius Weitzdörfe, who studies the problem at Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

He said: “A lot of people, including in the Government are absolutely unaware what it means, even if we lose electricity for only seven days.”

He said a previous study by the UK’s security services had estimated the country is “four meals away from anarchy” because looting would erupt and civil order would start to break down as soon as people had eaten what they had in their cupboards and fridges.

As well as a cyber attack, other black sky risks include extreme weather, an electromagnetic pulse caused by a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere and terrorist attacks on key substations or transformers.

One of the most destructive risks would be a powerful solar storm. A previous storm in 1859, now known as the Carrington Event, caused so much geomagnetic disruption that telegraph operators reported sparks bursting out of their machines. Such a storm today could cause havoc to electrical systems.

Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, a former chair of the Commons defence committee who now advises the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, said modern life had complete reliance on electricity.

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That sort of scenario could happen anytime, it could happen tomorrow

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