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Nuclear power plants don't understand the scope of cyber security vulnerabilities

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October 5, 2015

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A new report reveals that the nuclear power industry is totally ignorant of its cyber security shortcomings. And this is despite understanding the consequences of an interruption to power generation and their related critical issues.

The report concludes that cyber efforts to prevent such incidents are greatly lacking and that the industry needs to better address these shortcomings in an urgent manner.

The report adds that various internet search engines can readily identify critical infrastructure components with run-of-the-mill VPNs, some of which are installed in nuclear power plants.

The report also adds that nuclear facility operators are sometimes unaware of them in the first place.

Nuclear power plants simply don't understand their cyber security vulnerabilities, stated the Chatham House report, which found several industrial, cultural and technical challenges affecting nuclear facilities worldwide.

It also specifically pointed to a "lack of executive-level awareness" as one of the most serious concerns.

The study was conducted over a 1 1/2 year period and involved no less than thirty interviews with experts from several different countries, including the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Ukraine and Russia.

Among its more frightening discoveries is the notion of a widely-claimed myth that nuclear facilities are 'air gapped' as the commercial benefits of internet connectivity means that nuclear facilities are increasingly networked.

The report also suggests that cybersecurity issues facing the nuclear industry largely result from legacy problems. As most industrial control systems at nuclear facilities were developed in the 1960s and 1970s when computing was in its infancy, cybersecurity was not a consideration in their design.

"One example of the insecure by design nature of industrial control systems is the lack of authentication and verification," the report insisted. This obedience leaves nuclear facilities' control systems "particularly vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks that alter the communication between two critical devices".

Furthermore, the flexibility of code means that an attacker can change the logic, or the set of programming instructions for a piece of equipment in order to cause it to behave differently that what it was intended to.

And the overall lack of cyber forensics for intelligent control systems critically exacerbates the many difficulties nuclear facilities are facing in the modern world.

"It is almost impossible to protect the system once someone gains access to it," stated one source that asked not to be disclosed. "That means that right now, we're entirely reliant on the immediate perimeter to stop hackers in their tracks."

The report details no less than seven "known cyber security incidents at nuclear facilities" between 1992 and 2014:

  • In 1992 at the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, a technician intentionally introduced a virus into the industrial control system, which he claimed was "to highlight cyber security vulnerabilities".

  • Then in 2003, the David-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio was infected by the Slammer worm which disabled a safety monitoring system for almost five hours.

  • In 2006, the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama experienced a severe malfunction of both the reactor recirculation pumps and the condensate deminerliser controller (a type of PLC).

  • Then in 2008, the Hatch nuclear power plant was shutdown as an unintended consequence of a contractor's software update.

  • In 2010, an unnamed Russian nuclear power plant was revealed by Eugene Kaspersky to have been badly infected by the Stuxnet Virus, an issue that affects control equipment made by Germany-based Siemens.

  • Then in 2014, the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co was breached in South-Korea, and information was stolen. The attack was subsequently attributed to North Korea.

  • The most well-known incident dated back to 2010, when the Natanz nuclear facility and Bushehr nuclear power plant was infected by a worm and was found to be burrowing into industrial Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems on a global level.
  • Dubbed Stuxnet, the worm was programmed to remain dormant unless it detected the particular hardware fingerprint of an industrial software system manufactured by Siemens.

    Top researcher Ralph Langner's initial investigation into Stuxnet lead him to state his "100 percent certainty" that Stuxnet was designed to interrupt the Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz where it is believed to have partially destroyed around 1,000 centrifuges.

    In 2013, the worm was confirmed to be a state-sponsored product, created by a collaboration between the NSA and Israel.

    But the range of various threat actors posing a cyber risk to nuclear facilities extended well beyond those who were state-sponsored, claimed the report.

    The "sophisticated use of Facebook and various websites for recruiting purposes" by ISIS and other terrorist organizations means that "with sufficient financial resources, such groups could develop the capability to carry out a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant or employ a 'hack for hire' company to do this."

    Financial Times author Caroline Baylon reports that "it would be extremely difficult to cause a meltdown at a plant or compromise one but it would be possible for a state actor to easily do so."

    She added-- "The point is that risk is probability x (times) consequence. And even though the probability might be low, the consequence of a cyber incident at a nuclear power plant is extremely high at this point, and authorities around the world need to wake up and smell the coffee."

    Source: The Chatham House.

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