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UK utility networks ‘far too vulnerable’ to failure

hydrant-wheelUtility networks in the UK — including those for electricity and water — remain far too vulnerable to disruption and failure, according to a new inquiry released by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

The inquiry, “The State of the Nation: Defending Critical Infrastructure,” is based upon oral and written evidence from over 70 sources, including UK infrastructure asset owners, regulators, agencies and service providers. It concludes that, despite some steps taken by the Government to improve resilience, work remains piecemeal and there are still far too many gaps in the UK’s infrastructure defence system, leaving the nation vulnerable to crises.

“When the Atomic Weapons Establishment site at Burghfield flooded back in 2007, all radiation detection alarms were disabled,” said Alan Stilwell, leader of the ICE inquiry. “It was only down to luck that the flood waters didn’t lead to the spread of radioactive material that could have affected thousands of people and left the area near the factory uninhabitable for centuries.”

He continued, “In the same year, 350,000 people were left without water for 17 days when the Mythe water treatment works flooded. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people were hit by electricity blackouts when the Sizewell B nuclear reactor and Longannet coal-fire power station unexpectedly broke down within minutes of each other.

“We should be under no illusions — there are dangerous weaknesses in our critical infrastructure and utilities networks that need to be addressed,” Stilwell said.

The ICE inquiry identifies the main threats to the UK’s infrastructure networks as system failure (through underinvestment and neglect), climate change and terrorism. It finds that, whilst efforts are made through the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) to reduce vulnerabilities to terrorism and other national security threats, the threats from climate change are only just beginning to be considered and the threats from system failure are barely focussed on at all.

The report states that a lack of specific delivery bodies for all threats and an inadequate regulatory remit — which focuses almost exclusively on consumer prices and does not enforce resilience measures and promote reserve capacity — has resulted in many utility companies failing to adequately protect national assets.

Coupled with the total absence of a single point of authority providing an overview of the whole resilience situation and taking into account the interdependent nature of our infrastructure network, the situation leaves the entire system vulnerable to disruption, the inquiry concludes.

“We need to recognise that the UK’s infrastructure assets form an interdependent network, in which a single failure can cascade across the network rendering otherwise unaffected sectors inoperable,” Stilwell said. “Put simply, a water treatment plant cannot function without electricity and an electricity production plant cannot function without water.

“What is needed most of all is a single point of authority for infrastructure resilience — be it a Resilience Tsar, a new body or an existing body with expanded remit — which has responsibility for coordinating the work of the numerous agencies currently dealing with individual sectors and threats and promotes this essential concept of interdependency,” he continued. “We must also expand the remit of sector regulators such as Ofgem and Ofwat so they are not just focussing on consumer prices, but ensuring asset owners properly prepare for emergencies.”

Stilwell concluded, “Well defended critical infrastructure is central to the security and stability of the nation. We must work now to fortify our networks, or pay the economic, social and environmental price in the future.”

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