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Artificial intelligence, drone attacks on critical infrastructure and the prospect of future disruption to energy supplies by a hostile Russian regime are among the main threats to the UK identified in a government risk assessment.
The vulnerabilities were among 89 threats listed in the Cabinet Office’s national risk register published on Thursday, which included several that were being publicly acknowledged for the first time.
One of those making its first appearance in the register, last published in 2020, was the threat Russia posed to gas supplies to western Europe, after the Kremlin triggered an energy crisis because of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Another risk previously not listed was the vulnerability of undersea telecommunications cables and the damage an attack on them would cause, although military chiefs have publicly warned of the dangers in the past.
The “declassification” of information on these risks follows a wider shift towards transparency by the government, including a more open approach to divulging intelligence on cyber attacks, in order to bolster the UK’s resilience.
“This is the most comprehensive risk assessment we’ve ever published so that government and our partners can put robust plans in place and be ready for anything,” said Oliver Dowden, deputy prime minister.
The register lists artificial intelligence as a distinct “chronic threat” for the first time. It could cause an increase in harmful mis- and disinformation and “if handled improperly, reduce economic competitiveness”.
Climate change, antimicrobial resistance and serious organised crime were identified as the other chronic threats.
Acute threats were grouped into nine themes: terrorism; cyber; state threats; geographic and diplomatic; accidents and system failures; natural and environmental hazards; human, animal and plant health; societal; and conflict and stability.
The register sketched out a worst-case scenario and calculated both an impact and a likelihood rating for each risk.
The most severe threats were defined as having a “catastrophic” impact. They include a future pandemic that was given a “highly unlikely” rating of 5-25 per cent.
Other “catastrophic” events, such as large-scale chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks and the failure of UK electricity transmission, were given a “remote” 1-5 per cent chance of happening.
A civil nuclear accident, and radiation released from a nuclear site abroad, were the remaining risks deemed as having a “catastrophic” impact. However, they were given a likelihood rating of less than 0.2 per cent.
“Moderate” threats included terrorist attacks in public spaces, technological failure in the UK’s critical financial infrastructure, and an attack on an ally that needed international assistance. These risks all had a higher likelihood of more than 25 per cent.
On the other hand, a malicious drone attack on transport or “critical operations” was also judged to be a threat of “moderate” impact, but with only a 0.2 to 1 per cent chance of occurring.
“Significant” risks, assessed within a wider category of “conventional attacks on infrastructure”, included disruption of Russian gas supplies to Europe and a total loss of transatlantic telecom cables. They had a 5 to 25 per cent likelihood rating.