Nuclear Facilities are in ‘Denial’ to the risk of a ‘Serious Cyber Attack’

A new report makes the damning claim that nuclear power plants around the world have an “element of denial” about the risks of cyberattacks and are ignorant of their inherent cybersecurity flaws.

Cybersecurity risks concerning nuclear facilities are on an upward scale. The growing risks are due to the increasing reliance on “off-the-shelf” software that helps in cutting costs but are a lot easier to hack, according to a new report by London-based NGO Chatham House.

The report expanded on a number of threats overshadowing nuclear installations and found industrial, cultural and technical challenges facing nuclear facilities on a global scale.

The full report titled “Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities – Understanding the Risks” is available to download here (PDF).

Caroline Baylon, the report’s author stated:

“Cyber security is still new to many in the nuclear industry.

“They, are really good at safety and, after 9/11, they’ve got really good at physical security. But they have barely grappled with cyber.”

The comprehensive study was conducted by the non-profit over an 18-month period and involved interviews with 30 practitioners engaged in nuclear issues and cybersecurity in various field including industry, government, international organizations and academic institutions. The interviews were extended to experts from “the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan, Ukraine, Russia, Canada, and Germany.”

Industrial control systems experts & IT experts from major international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Network, and the Information Security Agency (ENISA) were also interviewed.

Recent High-Profile Cyber Attacks on Nuclear Facilities

nuclear power plantThe report also lists several known recent high-profile cyber attacks targeting nuclear facilities. The “most highly sophisticated publicly known cyberattack” was the attack targeting two nuclear facilities in Iran by a complex worm dubbed “Stuxnet,” the likes of which the world hadn’t seen before.

The facilities that were the targets of known cyber attacks between 1992 and 2014 are:

Ignalina nuclear power plant, Lithuania, 1992. – A technician intentionally plugged the industrial control system with a virus, which, he claimed, was to highlight the vulnerabilities inherent in the cybersecurity setup of the power plant. The white-hat was promptly arrested by the police.

Three years later, the Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary talked about the merging of nuclear and cyber terrorism.The hacking of a computer at the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania could have resulted in a disaster similar to that in Chernobyl.

The David-Besse nuclear power plant, USA, 2003. – The nuclear power plant based in Ohio was infected by the Slammer worm that exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft’s SQL 2000 database server software.

Spreading itself onto other machines, it proceeded to infect the SCADA system. From there, it took control of the safety parameter display system (SPDS), a safety monitoring system containing temperature sensors and radiation detectors and made it unavailable for almost five hours. Luckily the power plant’s reactor was not in operation at the time.

The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, USA, 2006 – The nuclear plant in Alabama suffered a malfunction of both the reactor recirculation pipes (pipes needed to cool the reactor) and the condensate demineralizer controller (a PLC). Both devices operate with microprocessors that send and receive data while plugged into an Ethernet network.

An excessive amount of traffic led to the malfunction and failure of both devices. It was only after the manual shut down of a plant’s unit that the nuclear power plant avoided a meltdown.

The Hatch nuclear power plant, USA, 2008 – An engineer from a company contracted to manage the nuclear power plant’s tech operations installed an update to a computer on the plant’s business network. The computer was also hooked into the plant’s control system networks with the manual update designed to synchronize data between the two networks.

When the computer was restarted after the update, the synchronization reset the data within the control system to zero, for a brief moment. This reading was enough for the plant’s safety system to deem that the water level required to cool the reactor was down to zero, promptly shutting down the plant for 48 hours, automatically.

Natanz nuclear facility and Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran, 2010 – The most high-profile incident of them all,  the two Iranian nuclear installations were the targets of a sophisticated worm called Stuxnet. The incident and the worm causing the incident has been elaborated upon further below.

Unnamed nuclear power plant, Russia, 2010 – While the plant hasn’t been identified, its air-gapped internal network was ‘badly infected by ‘Struxnet.’ The incident was revealed by Eugene Kaspersky of Kaspersky Lab.

Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. commercial network, South Korea, 2014 – In an attack that was attributed to state-sponsored North Korean hackers, a phishing campaign resulted in the breach of blueprints and manuals of two nuclear reactors. So too was personal data belonging to 10,000 company employees.

Hackers warned the operator to shut down 3 of the 23 reactors or face ‘destruction.’ The owner-operator ignored the ultimatum and it turned out to be an empty threat.

The Stuxnet Worm. The Invasive Threat is real.

Recent high-profile cyber attacks, including the deployment of the sophisticated 2010 Stuxnet worm, have raised new concerns about the cyber security vulnerabilities of nuclear facilities.

In making a reference to Stuxnet, the report highlighted the worm that infected computers at Iran’s nuclear facilities after it was uploaded through a flash drive.

The vulnerabilities at control systems in nuclear facilities
The vulnerabilities at control systems in nuclear facilities.

Expanding on the bug, the report read:

“There is a pervading myth that nuclear facilities are ‘air gapped’ – or completely isolated from the public internet -and that this protects them from cyber attack.

Yet, not only can air gaps be breached with nothing more than a flash drive (noting Stuxnet), but the commercial benefits of internet connectivity mean that nuclear facilities may have virtual private networks (VPNs) and other connections installed, sometimes undocumented or forgotten by contractors and other legitimate third-party operators.

The infamous worm was found infecting industrial Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, that are commonly referred to as the ‘backbone of modern industry’, and in use all around the world.

Gaining system-level access on computers running Windows, the sophisticated worm used false certificates to evade anti-virus scanners by making its files appear like they came from a legitimate source.

After infecting a computer, the Stuxnet worm with its shadow capabilities is designed to remain dormant until the computer connects to a specific SCADA system manufactured by Siemens. The payload is only activated with the connectivity is established. Until then, the worm spreads by replicating itself onto other computers through a shared network and USB flash drives.

Security researchers believe the Stuxnet worm was jointly designed by the US and Israeli governments, specifically tasked to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Altogether, the worm is said to have partially destroyed around 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran.

Significantly, cybercriminals with lesser capabilities than an advanced nation-state have now copied the worm’s advanced techniques and code to develop their own malware.

Once Stuxnet’s existence became publicly known, hackers around the world took inspiration from the way it functioned and incorporated some of its features into malware to suit their own purposes.

“The same techniques could be adopted to launch attacks on other nuclear facilities.”

The Threat of Terrorism and Physical Destruction

Radical groups such as ISIS with its recruiting via “its sophisticated use of Facebook and websites with their use of social media” and “sufficient financial resources” could potentially employ a “hack for hire” company or a group of hackers to target and carry out a cyberattack against a nuclear installation, the report notes.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Ms Baylon added 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 do, certainly.”

The point is, that risk is probability times consequence. And even though the probability might be low, the consequence of a cyber incident at a nuclear plant is extremely high.

Inept Security Practices

Some nuclear facilities still operate with default passwords on their equipment. “Hackers can often gain access more easily than managers of nuclear facilities expect [them to],” when default passwords of equipment manufacturers such as Honeywell and Siemens, the likes of ‘1234’, are shared by hackers on web forums.

Such factory-set default passwords are still being used “everywhere” in computer systems that regulate nuclear processes.

The Call for an Organizational Response

The report calls for a coordinated effort among the civil nuclear sector to bring about a cybersecurity regime that “functions intelligently and responsively within its area of concern, remaining absolutely current with the threat picture, concomitant risks and the arsenal of available countermeasures.”

The organized way in which threats are manifested through the internet requires an organizational response by the civil nuclear sector, which includes, by necessity, knowledgeable leadership at the highest levels, combined with dynamic contributions by management and staff and the entire stakeholder group, including members of the wider security and safety communities.

Images from Shutterstock.

Samburaj is the contributing editor at Hacked and keeps tabs on science, technology and cyber security.