Friday, January 13, 2012

Electrical Transformer Attack

It has been a while since I addressed an incident at a chemical facility and the lessons that it might have for security planners, but a brief news article on brought to mind a couple of security related thoughts that I want to share.

The Incident

The article reports that a ‘massive transformer’ caught fire at a Finnchem USA chlorine production facility in Richland County, SC. It’s too early to tell what caused the fire, but there is certainly no mention of ‘terrorism’. The 2,000 gallons of oil in the transformer resulted in a very smoky fire, but there is no apparent damage to the plant and no injuries reported.

The economic effects on the chlorine production unit were described as $1.5 million, but I suspect that the longer term consequences will raise that cost substantially. The production of chlorine requires substantial amounts of electricity which was undoubtedly the reason for the oversized transformer being on-site in the first place. This transformer being destroyed effectively shuts down chlorine production for weeks perhaps months; these transformers are not easy to replace.

The Terror Potential

Forget for the moment this as a possible attack mode designed to ultimately release chlorine gas. Chlorine producers take safety very seriously and have certainly taken a hard look at what the sudden loss of their high-voltage power supply would do to process safety. Automatic shutdown processes are certainly in place and the stand-alone safety systems just as certainly have alternative power sources and probably were not served by that power network in the first place.

So why worry about this as a terror target? First off, one needs to remember that the term ‘terrorist’ loosely describes people of a wide variety of backgrounds and motivations. These, in turn, are going to shape target selection and attack methodologies. An al Qaeda type terrorist, for instance, would be more likely to go after a large chlorine release with a resulting large death toll and wide spread panic in their planning of an attack on a facility like this.

Such an attack would more likely be an anathema to an environmental terrorist; the harm to local flora, fauna and innocent humans would far outweigh any potential political advantage gained by the attack. An economic attack on the producer, on the other hand, would certainly be an encouragement to stop the production of the targeted chemical. This would make a ‘massive electrical transformer’ a relatively clean target for such a terrorist.

Potential Attackers Guide Security

Security managers and regulators alike have to remember that the ‘terrorist community’ is truly heterogeneous in its motivations, skills and political objectives. All of these are going to affect target selection and attack methodologies. Likewise the proper identification of the facility’s potential adversaries will go a long way in determining what the facility will need to protect and how it should be best protected.

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