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.
That sort of scenario could happen anytime, it could happen tomorrow
That sort of scenario could happen anytime, it could happen tomorrowJulius Weitzdörfe, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk
People and businesses were so used to services and plentiful goods at their fingertips that they were unprepared for shortages and had no back-up supplies.
He said: “There’s one thing that modern society has come to rely on completely, apart obviously form air, and that’s electricity.
“Without electricity, modern life would grind to a halt and the complexity of modern society is such that if you take out one or two little pieces of the jigsaw, the whole thing collapses.
“If it were lost for a long time, thousands of deaths is really not an overestimate, it’s a severe underestimate.”
One of the biggest problems would be that water supplies and sewage services rely on electrical pumps.
“Without electricity a city becomes uninhabitable within a couple of days,” he said.
Fuel would also quickly run out because it requires electrical pumps, meaning transport and deliveries to shops, hospitals and institutions would quickly cease. As communications like the internet and phones failed, the Government would struggle to tell people what was going on.
Lord Harris of Haringey, another adviser to the EIS, said he had taken part in a recent exercise to test how resilient London would be to a major power outage. He said: “What very quickly develops is major failures in just about everything.”
Most institutions and companies had contingency plans and emergency generators, but they tended to assume they would be rescued by others who still had access to fuel and power. In a major outage that would not happen.
He said a major outage was “plausible but unlikely thing to happen. But the consequences if it were to happen are so significant it’s worth devoting some time to mitigating the effects.”
Lord Arbuthnot said the Government had to discuss the problem more openly and recognise it would affect the whole of society, not just public institutions.
A spokeswoman for the National Grid said the safe and reliable supply of energy “is our most important job and we have robust systems in place which enable us to monitor, detect and protect our network to keep energy flowing.
“We work closely with Government, industry partners and regulators to share information and intelligence to protect our network from current and future threats.”