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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Hazards and vulnerability in modern societies – using the example of a large-scale outage in the electricity supply

Thematic area: Technology, society, innovation
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Internal Affairs
Status: completed
Duration: 2008 till 2010

Background and central aspects of the topic

The infrastructures of highly technological, advanced, industrial countries are regarded as their lifelines: secure energy networks, functioning water supply, traffic carriers and transport pathways as well as information and communication technologies available around the clock.

In Germany, the dependency and vulnerability of society on these (critical) infrastructures have already become visible several times in the past few years as a result of natural disasters and technical breakdowns (flooding of the River Elbe in 2002, power cuts in the Münsterland region in 2005, storm Kyrill in 2007). At these times, the recognizable bottlenecks in supply, disturbances of public security, and interferences in road and rail traffic, for instance, as well as the highest level of challenges to the health, emergency and rescue services gave an impression of the hazardous situation of modern societies. They also showed that the protection of critical infrastructures as well as crisis and emergency management for preventing and overcoming possible consequences represent a challenge of the highest degree. The Protection Commission of the German Federal Minister of the Interior thus rightly concludes that "our society has and raises a level of vulnerability that must be taken seriously". There is thus basic consensus on the importance for security and civil protection of identifying and analysing risks and dangers as well as of concepts of integrated risk and crisis management that build on this.

Since about 80% of these structures are under private ownership, a security partnership between the state and companies is necessary to guarantee security and protection of the population. Nonetheless, the federal government and the states still have a special responsibility here. This has already resulted in, e.g. protection plans (recommendations for basic protection plans for companies, national plan to protect information infrastructures, new strategy for protection of the population in Germany), guidelines and recommendations. Nationally and in international research associations, the risks and dangers are being studied. There are already some research results available on this.

Due to the great dependence of almost all critical infrastructures on the electricity supply, the scenario of large-scale and longer-term electricity outage with the result of massive disturbances in supply becomes centrally important. A command post exercise (Lükex: National Crisis Management Exercise) carried out on this topic in 2004 made it clear how problematic the consequences and chain of consequences are and which enormous difficulties are involved in dealing with a crisis situation of this kind with no warning in the Federal structures.

Nevertheless, the possible consequences of such an event – as far as they can be recognized – have not yet been intensively and systematically thought through in the literature or in official governmental documents. Indeed, research up to now on questions of vulnerability and risk reduction reveals gaps in measuring and analysing the potential vulnerability of the affected social sectors and their coping potentials. Some current research projects, however, are now moving in these directions, although it is natural risks such as earthquakes and floods that are at their centre. Integrated analyses of the consequences of a "power cut" scenario do not exist to our knowledge.

Objectives and approach

Following a request from Committee on it internal Affairs investigate how a long-lasting and widespread power cut is planned to affects critical infrastructures such as drinking water, sewage, information and communication systems, and financial and health services, particularly in the event of a cascading effect, spreading beyond state and national boundaries.

This technology assessment project focuses on following central topics and working steps:

  • Identify the vulnerability of sample sectors and infrastructure facilities, including institutional vulnerability (organisations, procedures)
  • Record the coping capacities in specific social and official sections.
  • Overview and evaluation of instruments and set screws which reduce vulnerability (e.g., early warning systems, precautionary planning, effective insurance protection)
  • Case-specific work-up of the limits and possibilities of risk communication, sensitizing and informing the population, activating self-help potentials in the population, psychosocial prevention and aftercare.
  • Possibilities and limits of warning and continuing instruction of the population and informing organisations of civil protection and disaster aid.
  • Estimation of economic as well as social and ecological damage potentials.

Against the background of special political interests and the tasks of the select committee which initiated the topic, all analyses are equally orientated to answering the question of how well Germany is prepared for such a specific large-scale damage situation.

Due to the complex material, the very differentiated structures in terms of competence and actors in catastrophe management and civil protection (EU, Federal government, individual German states, private-public, civil-military) and the very scattered and incomplete situation in terms of literature, documents and data, it is very important to have a conceptual pre-phase in the project. By recording data and information and by means of (scientific) discussion, the aims of this are:

a) To elaborate preliminary results on the possible consequences and chain of consequences of a power cut in selected sectors and identify coping capacities and their deficits;

b) To develop conceptual, notional, and methodical considerations on an integrated vulnerability assessment based on a) for the main phase of the TAB project.

Analyses and reflections will be conducted from different perspectives and relate to:

  • Selected and particularly "critical" sectors with regard to specific vulnerabilities, damage potentials and coping capacities
  • Selected structures/networks (traffic, conventional/mobile telephone networks, disposal/supply)
  • Challenges for various actors and structures and their coping capacities in critical sectors as well as, going beyond these boundaries, danger management within and outside the police, civil and military cooperation, public-private health systems, capacities for self-protection present in the population etc.