Researchers at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory have shown that it's possible to remotely hack into a control system for an electrical generator and cause it to fail--not just stop, but actually fly apart. The details of this experiment, called the Aurora Generator Test, were inadvertently disclosed by Dept. of Homeland Security officials at a conference in Atlanta.
The test exploited a known programming vulnerability in SCADA systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems), the computer systems that control electric, water and chemical plants. These are, for the most part, very old systems. The test took a theoretical attack and made it real. The vulnerability has since been patched, but anyone who's been involved in computers knows that where there's one vulnerability, there's more.
The associated press obtained and video showing the generator jerking violently and smoking. The video is pretty interesting to watch. Doing the test must have been a load of fun. After all, most hacking exercises don't result in black smoke pouring from an expensive machine.
This is sure to be overblown by some. SCADA systems are harder to hack because they're harder to get your hands on and play with. In this case, there is some security in obscurity. It's also good know that there are people checking out these vulnerabilities and fixing them.