Posted On November 20, 2015 by Print This Post

The Things That Keep Me Up at Night, or How to Kill a Million People with a Keystroke by Adam Firestone

I’m excited to welcome back weapons expert Adam Firestone, but I have to admit, when I saw the title of Adam’s post I was nervous to read it. I figured if something keeps Adam up at night, it’s sure to give me nightmares for days – or weeks – to come.  Adam’s perspective always has fascinating insights to help authors come up with realistic plot twists. With the news from Paris in the past week, today’s post is as timely as it is powerful.

In my role as the senior executive of a Washington beltway cybersecurity company, I’m asked a great number of questions.  They are asked by friends, by family, by the media, by people I meet at events and on trains and airplanes.  The ensuing discussions often revolve around some form of “What keeps you up at night?”  The frequency and intensity of these questions and conversations increased markedly in the wake of last week’s tragic events in Paris.

Let me start by stating emphatically that a coordinated act of terrorism involving explosives and firearms is not my greatest fear.  It doesn’t even make the top three.  It’s not that I’m not worried about such things.  It’s that I have the fortune to be a citizen of the country with the greatest, and most effective intelligence and law enforcement organizations in the world.  The people who work for and with those organizations are talented, diligent, effective and utterly dedicated to defeating a despicable and ruthless enemy.  And they’ve been dramatically effective.

In the wake of 9/11, the world has seen attacks in London, Madrid and Paris.  But not in the United States, and that fact can be directly attributed to the skill and resources that American security organizations can bring to bear.  It’s also that I happen to live in a place where citizens are entitled to be armed, and where, in fact, many are.  It’s one thing to plan an attack on a place where an unarmed and defenseless citizenry can be expected.  It’s a different story entirely when up to 25% of the population may be legally carrying concealed firearms.  (At the time of writing, there may or may not be a .45 caliber pistol on my hip. . .)

So no, it’s not Kalashnikov wielding jihadis that keep me awake at night.

It’s keyboard wielding hackers in the service of extremist groups like Daesh.

More specifically, it’s keyboard wielding hackers who are attacking core generating components of the American electrical grid.  Let me tell you a story.

H.F. Lee Power Plant

H.F. Lee Power Plant

Electrical energy generation relies on fundamental principles discovered during the 1820s and early 1830s by British scientist Michael Faraday. Faraday’s basic method is still used today: electricity is generated by the movement of a loop of wire, or disc of copper, between the poles of a magnet.  This movement is generally rotational in nature.  That is to say, something spins inside something else.  The part that spins is called a rotor and the fixed part is called a stator.  The loop or disc is called the armature, and its role is to carry electrical current.  It’s always made from electrically conductive material (e.g., copper).  The magnets that the armature moves within is called the field winding or field magnet. The role of the “field” component is to create a magnetic field or magnetic flux with which the armature interacts, and it can be made of either permanent magnets, or electromagnets formed by a conducting coil.

Turbine Generator

Turbine Generator

That’s the sum total of the electrical engineering for this article.  Now for some mechanical engineering.  The piece you need to pay attention to is the idea that the rotor spins inside a stator.  The rotational motion of the rotor often comes from a turbine, which is made to revolve by a fast-moving flow of water, steam, gas, air, or other fluid.  Turbines in commercial power generation facilities spin fast.  How fast?  Usually between 1,800 and 3,600 revolutions per minute (rpm).  To put that in perspective, aircraft propellers are generally limited to 2,500 rpm.  Moreover, the turbine-rotor assemblies are BIG.  How big?  Think hundreds of tons with shaft lengths that can easily exceed 100 feet.

Pop quiz.  What’s the most important operational factor when dealing with a 150 foot long cylinder that weighs 250 tons that is spinning at 3,000 rpm?  The answer is balance.  Unless the shaft – and any blades, vanes or appendages that may be attached to it – are in perfect balance, significant damage can occur.  Imbalance can be the result of a misaligned shaft or a failure to achieve proper rotational speed synchronization.  Synchronization problems – for example, those caused by rapid and/or random changes in rotational speed – can result in vibration of sufficient magnitude to unbalance the shaft.


The damage that can be caused by unbalanced operation is significant, and ranges from the degradation of lubricant seals, collisions between turbine/rotor and stator components and bearing damage, any of which can result in harm up to and including the destruction of the turbine, rotor or the entire generator.  Given what’s at stake, it’s important to ensure that the generator runs at peak balance and efficiency.  This is accomplished by automating the monitoring and control of generator machinery.  The technology that accomplishes this goal is collectively referred to as “Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition” or SCADA equipment.

SCADA systems provide control of remote equipment and are a type of industrial control system (ICS). Industrial control systems are computer-based systems that monitor and control industrial processes that exist in the physical world. SCADA systems often enable remote control by communicating over the Internet.  These processes controlled include industrial, infrastructure, and facility-based processes, such as power generation.  A key component of SCADA systems are programmable logic controllers, or PLCs.

A PLC is a digital computer used for automation of industrial electromechanical processes, such as control of machinery, and they run programs to control machine operation in real-time. This means that the control inputs must be produced in response to system conditions within a limited time to avoid unintended operation. (Translation: BAD THINGS)

Power outage

Power outage


There’s just one more thing you need to know about turbines, rotors, generators, SCADA systems and PLCs.  Well, most importantly about turbines.

The turbines used for commercial power generation in the United States are custom made.  They don’t exist as an off the shelf commodity.  Production lead times are normally measured in years, although in emergency conditions it’s feasible to get one in six to eight months.  And they are not made in the United States.  While a small percentage are manufactured in the United Kingdom and Europe, the vast majority are made in India and China.

One more fact:

In 2007, the Idaho National Laboratory ran a test to demonstrate how a cyber attack could destroy physical components of the electric grid.  The lab installed a 2.25 megawatt (mw) generator and connected it to an electrical substation. In the experiment, the researchers used a cyber attack to rapidly open and close circuit breakers out of sync, maximizing torque stress. Each time the breakers were closed, the torque from the out of synchronization operation caused significant vibration.  The vibration caused the generator to bounce and shake.  Within a couple of minutes, the generator began pouring smoke and shuddered to a stop. Parts were ripped apart and sent flying, some landing as far as 80 feet away.

In this image from video released by the Department of Homeland Security, smoke pours from an expensive electrical turbine during a March 4, 2007, demonstration by the Idaho National Laboratory, which was simulating a hacker attack against the U.S. electrical grid. (AP Photo/Dept. of Homeland Security)

In this image from video released by the Department of Homeland Security, smoke pours from an expensive electrical turbine during a March 4, 2007, demonstration by the Idaho National Laboratory, which was simulating a hacker attack against the U.S. electrical grid. (AP Photo/Dept. of Homeland Security)

Now here’s the nightmare:

It’s the week before Thanksgiving, which is to say, late November.  Late November is a time when the weather in many parts of the United States starts to turn cold as winter approaches.  The average January temperature in New York City is 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Boston is 29.  Chicago is 22. DC is 34.  Minneapolis is 13.  In other words, COLD.  On the Friday before Thanksgiving, a terrorist group attacks all the generators that serve a major northern US city.  In five minutes, millions of people are plunged into darkness.

But it gets worse.

The generators are physically damaged.  The turbines are destroyed.  There’s no way to get them operational without parts – which take at least six months to manufacture and ship.  That means no light, no heat, no gasoline for at least six months.  (Most, if not all, control systems for home heating are controlled electronically, and gasoline pumps operate electrically.)  Those people that can’t be moved out will die.  Societal order will break down.  Chaos will rule.

In five minutes, with no expenditure of ordnance or ammunition or lives, terrorists have killed at least one million Americans.

Is this feasible? Absolutely.  But instead of fear, I hope you’re feeling indignation, and that you’re reaching for the phone to demand action of your legislators and governor on cybersecurity.

Is this a great plot buttress?  I think so.

Let me leave you on this positive note:  Not only is the United States blessed with the finest intelligence and law enforcement organizations in the world, but the combination of American industry and academia is the most innovative, creative and effective force at solving hard problems in the world.  The problem is being worked, tirelessly, every minute of every day.  Which means that we all, with each passing second, become safer.


What keeps YOU up at night?

Join us on Monday when Pat Haggerty talks about Mail Chimp.


Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.

Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.

Check out Adam’s blog here:

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9 Responses to “The Things That Keep Me Up at Night, or How to Kill a Million People with a Keystroke by Adam Firestone”

  1. Thanks so much for another thought-provoking post, Adam!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 20, 2015, 10:09 am
  2. The Big Chill? As usual, you’ve given me something to think about. Great to have you back!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 20, 2015, 8:24 pm
  3. You know, it was always vampires that kept me up late at night…had vampire nightmares for about 30 years, then they just quit.

    Now I’ve got something new to worry about…turbines. Living in Iowa, where it’s COLD already, yeah, that can be a total nightmare.

    Look out Jen, Becke and I will be coming to visit! =)

    very thought provoking adam!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 22, 2015, 9:16 pm
  4. * It’s also that I happen to live in a place where citizens are entitled to be armed*

    My GOD. So – hang on.

    You believe that because you live in a country where any hillbilly can own and wave around an AK47, if someone blew up trains in America (like they did in Madrid and London), your gun would stop it??!!

    So glad I live in a country with normal gun laws and no mass shootings.

    Posted by Sonya Heaney | November 28, 2015, 10:31 am


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