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What could be worse than a nationwide downing of the U.S. electrical grid after a devastating cyber attack? How about a grossly inaccurate fictional account of needless panic and despair produced by National Geographic.

If you missed the premier of the wildly inane and ridiculously under-researched tale “American Blackout” that aired Sunday evening, you are among the fortunate ones who were spared a few hours of nauseating distraction.

If you were unfortunate enough to catch it, read no further and just tend to your mental health needs after suffering through the onslaught of FUD.

The producer pitched the movie as “the story of a national power failure in the United States caused by a cyberattack — told in real time, over 10 days, by those who kept filming on cameras and phones. You’ll learn what it means to be absolutely powerless. Gritty, visceral and totally immersive, see what it might take to survive from day one, and who would be left standing when the lights come back on.”

How bad was American Blackout? From the outset, the mini-drama got the fundamental facts wrong in that the North American grid is interconnected with Canada and Mexico, so any widespread disruption would not have been isolated to the U.S. alone, but that’s just a minor oversight.

“If – and it’s a BIG IF – we suffer a widespread outage as a result of equipment loss, we would have islands of power back up within a very short time – we practice outage scenarios all the time,” says Patrick Miller (@PatrickCMiller), managing partner at the Anfield Group, founder of EnergySec, and a Principal Investigator for the National Electric Sector Cybersecurity Organization (NESCO).

“Sometimes just because we know it’s the right thing to do and sometimes because mother nature gives us an opportunity. We should always prepare for disaster scenarios. We should never become complacent and think it’ll never happen to us. The part of this story that is left out is the fact that the electric utilities are some of the most prepared organizations imaginable,” Miller continued.

Miller says the scenario is possible, but only because anything is possible, but it is extremely improbable, and was not an accurate portrayal on any level.

“The North American grid  is profoundly resilient. The engineers that currently design and maintain the grid are some of the most creative and innovative people on the planet. Every utility operations employee knows the dependence of this nation on electricity. They take their jobs very seriously,” Miller said.

As testimony to the unbridled silliness of the production, when it looks as if all hope is lost and people are about read to start eating one another, the power comes back on and everyone breaths a collective sigh of relief while one woman triumphantly hold up her cell phone and exclaims “I have coverage!”

That was the last spoken line of the movie. Seriously, that’s what she said.

Tripwire University
  • Old Crow

    I notice your sources fail to mention that there is no national mandate for grid protection, and that only one state (Maine) has such a mandate. Also, as someone who works in the CEMA field, your sources can talk about the dedication of their employees all they want, but the fact of the matter is all one has to do is read the most recent Lloyd's of London report here:… to get a better understanding of our vulnerabilities. Who are you going to trust, the utility companies who don't want you to worry about anything, or the guys that have to pay out if something does happen?

    • Appreciate your points and generally agree – but this article in particular was regarding how ridiculous the NatGeo movie was – all FUD, no facts…

  • Phil

    I have not seen the Nat Geo film, and so cannot comment on its content or accuracy. Having worked "in this Industry" I would be far from so assured that things would be restored to a semblance of normality in a timely manner. You should be aware that loss of major assets (major Grid infrastructure such as transformer sets, reactors, and line VAR management hardware), would lead to a very long term problem, since replacements are not "off the shelf" with lead times in years for the higher MVA devices. Consequential effects of loss would be significant, with certain damage to SCADA infrastructure, and so added problems that would make re-establishment of even local (island) generation and distribution far more difficult.

    Add in the known problems facing an ageing and costly to maintain network, and all of a sudden the "Doom and Gloom" scenario becomes a lot more likely. Not guaranteed, but more likely.

    • Thanks Phil – great points. Damage to transformer sets, reactors, and line VAR management hardware as you mentioned would imply a kinetic outcome to a cyber attack, which is highly unlikely even in the wake of evidence from Stuxnet – that equipment is not as easy to "wreck" as causing centrifuges to spin faster or slower than optimal.

  • Don Worth

    I don't agree with your article at all. Time and time again the District of Columbia loses power. In the winter it may be for several days. During hurricane season it’s for several days. During the excessive heat of summer it may last for several days. Where is this magical back-up power you speak of? In Virginia it’s the same thing. It doesn't take a genius to realize once grocery stores lose power for hours or days or weeks things get ugly. Your article should focus on individuals being prepared for long term – not criticizing a show that highlights real world possibilities. You may want to check into what the top threats of this country are before you write another article.

    • A serious discussion of the subject of critical infrastructure security is always welcome, but FUD and fear-mongering such as was presented in the NatGeo mockumentary do little to inform or cultivate the conversation. It really looked more like an ad for NatGeo's new show "Dooms Day Preppers" than an attempt to highlight real world possibilities and insecurity in SCADA/ICS. It was pure FUD, period.

  • smithw6079

    Good article, but I hope you're wrong about :American Blackout". I didn't catch it last week but planned to watch it tonight. So many shows start with great potential and offer useful information, including "Dooms Day Preppers"; but quickly turn into silly personality conflicts with superfluous trash-talk to entertain us. When the number one movie in America is "Bad Grandpa", what should we expect? Gotta entertain the masses. If this blackout scenario ever happens, you'll see social chaos and unbelievable cruelty within days. We (Americans) have become naive, soft, and dependent on our government for everything.

    I remember a few years back when the "Bird Flu" pandemic was being discussed and a poll showed that 40% of the health care workers said they would not show up for work. That's a low percent, most people will stay home in any huge national disaster to care for their families.

    • I wish I were wrong – I was excited to see it until I did. Turns out it was just like a mash-up of "Blair Witch" and "Lizard Lick"… Dreadful!

  • Brad

    I have not watched the film so I can't speak to that. The grid on the other hand is not as resilient as some have commented. Look up the caring ton event of the early 1900's. The grid is very vulnerable and naturally or unnaturally could suffer a catastrophic failure.

    • Agree the grid is vulnerable – very vulnerable. But this portrayal was completely over the top in the most inane way imaginable. South Park could have done a better job educating folks about potential repercussions from a major outage.

  • Melisssa In Texas

    the gal holding her pnone up musta ad an Obama phone

  • Joe

    I do not believe people truly realize how much of their lives are based around technology. If some people lost Facebook for a few days, they would seriously go insane. Americans are lazy in our current era, only a few could actually build themselves shelter if they had too. Only a few would know what they need to do to survive if it came to it. People burn down towns over winning, why would they not burn them down in desperation?

  • Chris M

    Doomsday Preppers is in its third season, so its hardly new. You want to talk about FUD and foil hat kooks, this is your show. I watched American Blackout and while I agree that it glosses over a lot of details, it certainly has me thinking about 'what if?' Not that I am rushing out to the back yard to start digging my bunker, but the occurrence of another Katrina or Sandy in the near future is highly likely. BTW, when is the last time a hurricane hit Portland?

    It is easy to dismiss the plausibility of a nationwide grid failure because it hasn't yet happened. But the same could have been said about the financial institutions 5 years ago.

  • mlbh2os

    Brad, Just so you know: the Carrington event happened in 1859, the only 'grid" was the telegraph which did take a hit and injure a few telegraph employee's. However if that size solar storm hit us today; it's lights out on the sun facing side of the earth! Cyber attack is a different animal al together much rather face that than the wrath of ra.

  • Mike H

    I've been in the power industry for about 15 years now, and the vulnerabilities of the grid are overstated but they do increase every year. The cold war grid that was built from 1940 – the mid 1990's was impervious to widespread disruptions. Critical problems could be fully contained within one interconnect and serious issues The "new and improved" smart grid that is being jammed down utilities throats by idiot politicians, environmental and community activists, government contractor cronies (GE), and know nothing academics who sit in comfy think tank desks instead of the control rooms that make this grid work are destroying the engineered robustness of the grid. Granted, the changes to the national grid (I refuse to call them upgrades or improvements) will marginally reduce our electricity cost and make generation more efficient (once again marginally), but we trade robustness and operational margin for these "improvements".

    Are we as vulnerable in 2013 as the NatGeo documentary suggests? No. Will we be in 5 years, perhaps. Will we be in 10 year, absolutely.

  • sskaine84

    Nice opinion, to bad it's not really true. You say something like this could never happen and if it did we'd have power back up in a very short amount of time. There are many things that could knock out power grids in sections but for the entire grid to go down well that would be kinda hard to do. I'm sure everyone knows about this but a Carrington event size solar flare would sure do the trick, in 1849 when the only thing electrical related areound were telegraph lines, offices burst into flames, the sky was so bright with Aurorae people could read their newspapers and the lights were seen as far south as the Bahamas. Telegraph operators recieved electrical shocks, sent and recieved messages even though their equipment was unplugged. If this happened tomorrow it would send enough current through the air to literally melt transformers off the poles, the immediate effects would be catstrophic, planes falling out of the sky, etc… Even if the minimum time to get all the damged lines, transformers, fires put out would be like a month, could you imagine what people would do in that amount of time. When all the food in your refridgerator goes bad you'll go out looking for some along with the rest of your town or city. Police would have a hard time being effective without communication, most cars with computers would be fried, so everyone would be on foot, I doubt with all the riots and people going crazy anyone would even try to fix the power grid at least until everything calmed down. How many would that leave dead and what would be the effects of that? It's not the point of the grid going down cause that could esily happen, the question is how would people handle it when they run out of food, medical assistance, police assistance, do you really think everyone will just hold hands and sing kumbaya when their kids start starving?

    • Carrington was a kinetic event with material damages – I just don't see the comparison to any sort of cyber attack that could be mounted now or for years to come – even with what is evidenced by Stuxnet.

  • Brilliant article. It’s amazing how many ignorant people didn’t get it or have any insight into what FUD is. And “Blair Witch” is exactly what I thought of during the 20 minutes of this garbage we were able to tolerate before we had to switch the channel.

    In the past, National Geographic had wonderful shows. I have never seen an organization fall so far. Abominable films such as “American Blackout” will only make a real disaster worse, not better. Programs of this type should be promoting knowledge and faith, not fear.

  • phyllis

    We lost power for 5 days during a REGIONAL New England ice storm. Some in this area were without power for 3 weeks. We had utility companies from as far as Canada and Ohio. I realize that when it's storm related, they must also contend with debris removal but I'm not convinced a 10 day outage would not actually be months.

    • Thanks Phyllis. Again, that was kinetic damage of epic proportions from a storm, but not from a cyber attack. And pretty sure no one tried to kill each other because they had no cell phone coverage.

  • "If there is one thing that is going to save you in a disaster–in a survival situation–make you more comfortable–it's your attitude and it's being aware"

    Disaster Preparedness with Michael Beach, DNP, ACNP, PNP (

  • patriotbabe

    How quickly we have forgotten the chaos of Katrina. Imagine if Katrina was the entire USA. It would not be as far fetched as you think to have mass chaos in the cities. Here is an article put out by the army about the effects on our communications:

    Most people who have any type of critical thinking skills watched this with the mindset that this is made for TV drama and not set in reality. Those who see the world without the rose colored glasses know that there were a lot of things in the broadcast that were probably wrong, but easily tossed those and used it instead as a way to have a conversation about ways to prepare ourselves for another Katrina, Sandy, etc.

    • Again, that was kinetic damage of epic proportions from a storm, but not from a cyber attack.

  • watching

    In the case of one vendor, Mr. Crain found that he could actually infiltrate a power station’s control center from afar. An attacker could use that capability to insert malware to take over the system, and like Stuxnet, the computer worm that took out 20 percent of Iran’s centrifuges, inflict actual physical harm

  • Static

    A mostly dependent system restoration would take weeks, depending on the amount of remaining generation online inside the islands.

    A fully independent system restoration would take at least a year.

    Next time find an experienced system operator to bounce questions off, rather than a former CIP auditor.

  • Mike

    Admittedly, "American Blackout" was a little over the top most of the time, and a lot over the top a few times. However, I took it as an attempt to highlight what the worst possible scenarios could be in a number of different situations, beginning with a nationwide outage. I too believe it to be highly unlikely that the entire nation would go dark for even a few hours, let alone a few days. That being said, basing your entire argument on an appeal to authority, that also happens to have a vested interest in painting the industry in a good light, isn’t going to convince even the most skeptical to your position. “American Blackout” was prepper porn, pure and simple. But hopefully it reached a few people, like the high rise dwellers in the story, for example, that may take a second look at the fragile supply chain that keeps them fed from day to day, and gets them thinking about a little self-sufficiency.

  • Georgie

    Great article. National Geographic should be ashamed of themselves. Scare mongering and feeding the fear of the kind of idiot whom they feature on doomsday preppers. Have cancelled my subscription to thier magazine and am flicking over to bear grills on discovery.

  • Dmv

    This article is horrible. I watched the net geo black out. Three years ago we had a horrible storm that happend in the blink of an eye in the dmv are, we lose power all the time btw, no one was prepared, not even the weather stations. I was working at giant as a cashier as I had just graduated. The dmv area which was hit went absolutely crazy. Within hours of the storm all of our frozen and dairy foods had to be thrown out, people were rushing in buying every single thing that came in cans. The Exxon and shell ran dry of any gas witchin two hours of the storm. The blackout lasted for about two days, and by that second day every single store was whipped out of gas, food or water, lets not forget every generator was also whipped out. Two days imagine if we had gotten to eight and people had no one with power to rely on.

    • A storm causes a lot more damage than a widespread blackout. Apples and Oranges here.

  • Gino

    I had the power comp drop my service main this summer so I could drop a few trees. I picked the brain of the lineman about this subject. He works for First Energy. He told me he tells people " Welcome to First Energy, Buy a generator". He said they are 20 to 30 years behind in maintenance and upgrades. Said he expects to see a major East coast blackout sometime before his career is over.
    This is coming from someone who knows the grid first hand. Mr. Freed you can bury your head in the sand all you want but don't come to my house looking for help becasue you won't get it.

    • The question remains as to whether his prediction of a major blackout would be the result of a cyber attack, and the answer is still “no” – what you are talking about are maintenance issues, which is a completely different narrative.

      • Gino

        Yes the grid going down nation wide ibecasue of cyber attack s a ridiculous proposition but the take away point is what might happen if the grid goes down. Does it it really matter why it goes down? People need to be educated that the grid can fail on a wide spread basis, for an exteneded period of time, what it would mean if it did and what steps they can take now to lessen the impact if/when it does happen.

        You are the one who wrote “The North American grid is profoundly resilient. The engineers that currently design and maintain the grid are some of the most creative and innovative people on the planet. Every utility operations employee knows the dependence of this nation on electricity. They take their jobs very seriously,”

        I just wanted to add to the discussion the state of the grid I am personally somewhat dependent on. FYI – i have had to resort to my generator twice in the last couple of months. Last time was a maintence or lack there of issue.


        • Gino – agree there are problem with the grid, as with any system of such enormity that is governed by literally hundreds of distinct entities. My point in the article was that NatGeo was foisting FUD and not addressing any "real world" issues at all. The Grid goes down all the time due to weather and other natural disasters, as well as due to a lack of proper maintenance as you pointed out – all of which have kinetic aspects. However, it does not and has not gone down due to a cyber attack, period. And if a cyber-based attack were to cause a disruption, it would be no where on the scale of a hurricane or other major kinetic event which we deal with on a yearly basis. The show was designed to shock and scare the uninformed public and promote their "Domms Day" show, nothing more…

          • Alan

            Look up stuxnet and you will see that as the grid becomes more automated that is will be possible.

  • brian

    If you are going to quote a line from a film, get it right. She says that her phone has service and begins to talk to a loved one. I get that it's the same thing as coverage, but a critical review needs to be accurate.

    The whole show was a case of terrible fearmongering that natgeo should be ashamed of. It's just typical that all television channels start out good and turn to complete crap with time ala TLC, Discovery Channle, History Channel and now National Geographic.