Workers of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co participate in an anti-cyber attack exercise at the Wolsong nuclear power plant in Gyeongju, South Korea. Photo by Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co via Getty Images.Workers at the Wolsong nuclear power plant participate in an anti-cyber attack exercise, Gyeongju, South Korea. Photo: Getty Images.

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 major new report from Chatham House.

Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities: Understanding the Risks is the result of an 18-month study that draws on in-depth interviews with 30 leading industry practitioners based in more than eight countries. It found 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.

Editor's notes: 

Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities: Understanding the Risks, written by Caroline Baylon with Roger Brunt and David Livingstone, is embargoed until Monday 5 October 2015.

Caroline Baylon is the research associate in science, technology and cyber security at Chatham House. Roger Brunt was appointed the UK government's regulator for security in the civil nuclear industry as the director of the Office for Civil Nuclear Security after retiring from the British Army in 2004. David Livingstone is an associate fellow at Chatham House, where he has participated in a broad range of projects on national-level risk management, cyber security, counterterrorism, serious organized crime, nuclear security and space security.

Fore more information, or to request an interview with the authors, contact the press office