Weather is a greater threat to the nation's energy system than the possibility of terrorist attacks, an industry official told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Utilities and the Department of Energy have initiated a security program to protect the nation's electrical distribution system, but "skepticism was rampant" among planners that a multisite terrorist attack ever would be carried out against U.S. electric facilities, said Michael R. Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council.He told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that the dependability and resilience of the nation's energy system "has been amply demonstrated."

Gent said hurricanes could cause more damage than terrorists, "and we've shown we can handle hurricanes."

Another witness before the committee, which was concluding two days of hearings on the vulnerability of U.S. telecommunications and energy resources to terrorism, said there had been 283 documented cases of sabotage against American energy systems since 1980.

But Robert K. Mullen, a terrorism expert, said he saw no evidence of an increasing terrorist threat in the United States and that most previous acts of sabotage have been aimed at individuals who own or operate service stations or other retail facilities.

In testimony Tuesday, the committee was told that the increasing high-tech nature of the U.S. telecommunications systems and a trend towards centralization of facilities was making the networks more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The government is ill-equipped to deal with such attacks, which could be carried out with conventional weapons, or even computers, by as few as a half-dozen assailants, a committee investigator said following a yearlong investigation.

"In many cases, the consequences appear to be manageable; in a few cases, the consequences are potentially catastrophic," Charles C. Lane, a committee investigator, told a committee hearing.