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How likely is a debilitating cyber attack?

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CHICAGO – Thousands of state lawmakers and staff at a national conference on state issues in Chicago got an earful on the security of the electric grid, and utilities admitted they know less about the issue than they should.

Russia, China and the U.S. all have the capabilities to take out the others' grids, but not the will. Defense experts said North Korea or ISIL may lack the capability, but not the will, and may someday have the capability to cause major electrical outages.

The bright lights of big cities would be dimmed, along with the lights in your home for weeks, or even months, as a result of cyber attacks or an act of war. The utilities, speaking to lawmakers, said they are fighting off attacks every day.

“They only have to be right once," Devon Streit, with Arkansas Electrical Coop, said. "We have to be right every single time.”

Electrical providers said an outage is more likely to last weeks than months if a major attack succeeds, but they admitted they don’t know as much as they should, which is why they are funding extended research on EMP and cyber attacks.

“Electro-magnetic waves are fluky things," Streit said. "No one really understands how they work, and I’m an electrical engineer, and I’ll just tell you that right now.”

As a 2013 attack on a substation in California got the utilities attention, they said they now have a list of the most vulnerable sites in America. However, that list was said to be confidential.

Former news anchor turned author Ted Koppel told the audience the attacks are much more likely and devastating than the utilities admit, and no one is ready for the worst-case scenario.

“This isn’t Ted Koppel saying it, this is Ted Koppel quoting the former head of the National Security Agency,” Koppel said.

South Florida lawmaker Richard Stark called the session eye-opening.

“Instead of being proactive and planning, we tend to wait until there is a disaster,” Stark said.

Koppel and others said a lengthy grid outage would strain food and fuel supplies, as well as everything else that we take for granted.