Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities: Understanding the Risks

The risk of a serious cyber attack on civil nuclear infrastructure is growing, as facilities become ever more reliant on digital systems and make increasing use of commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ software, according to a new Chatham House report.

Chatham House report Published 5 October 2015 Updated 16 January 2024

Workers at the Wolsong nuclear power plant participate in an anti-cyber attack exercise, Gyeongju, South Korea. Photo: Getty Images.

Workers at the Wolsong nuclear power plant participate in an anti-cyber attack exercise, Gyeongju, South Korea. Photo: Getty Images.

The report finds that the trend to digitization, when combined with a lack of executive-level awareness of the risks involved, means that nuclear plant personnel may not realize the full extent of their cyber vulnerability and are thus inadequately prepared to deal with potential attacks.

Specific findings include:

  • The conventional belief that all nuclear facilities are ‘air gapped’ (isolated from the public internet) is a myth. The commercial benefits of internet connectivity mean that a number of nuclear facilities now have VPN connections installed, which facility operators are sometimes unaware of.
  • Search engines can readily identify critical infrastructure components with such connections.
  • Even where facilities are air gapped, this safeguard can be breached with nothing more than a flash drive.
  • Supply chain vulnerabilities mean that equipment used at a nuclear facility risks compromise at any stage.
  • A lack of training, combined with communication breakdowns between engineers and security personnel, means that nuclear plant personnel often lack an understanding of key cyber security procedures.
  • Reactive rather than proactive approaches to cyber security contribute to the possibility that a nuclear facility might not know of a cyber attack until it is already substantially under way.

In the light of these risks, the report outlines a blend of policy and technical measures that will be required to counter the threats and meet the challenges.

Recommendations include:

  • Developing guidelines to measure cyber security risk in the nuclear industry, including an integrated risk assessment that takes both security and safety measures into account.
  • Engaging in robust dialogue with engineers and contractors to raise awareness of the cyber security risk, including the dangers of setting up unauthorized internet connections.
  • Implementing rules, where not already in place, to promote good IT hygiene in nuclear facilities (for example to forbid the use of personal devices) and enforcing rules where they do exist.
  • Improving disclosure by encouraging anonymous information sharing and the establishment of industrial CERTs (Computer Emergency Response Team).
  • Encouraging universal adoption of regulatory standards.