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Hackers Attacking More and More Nuclear Facilities, Report Shows

The threat of cyberattacks on nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities is substantial and growing, according to a report this week by a prominent industry group.

Experts at the Nuclear Industry Summit, gathered in Washington, say attackers are becoming more skillful and dangerous, meaning companies, governments and regulators must make cybersecurity an industry-wide priority.

“Cyberattacks on nuclear facilities have happened,” said Anno Keizer of the Nuclear Industry Summit, who is vice chair of the working group on managing cyberthreats. “It is not a fantasy; it is not a hypothetical situation; it’s what happens in real life and which we need to manage in real life. We have also seen that the consequences of an attack can be substantial, both in damaging equipment and disturbing the services that the company delivers to society.”

A cyberattack against Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power in South Korea saw hackers steal and release information, Keizer says, in what published reports say might have been a bid to raise public concern about the nuclear industry.

Other attacks on non-nuclear, major industrial targets also raise concerns. An attack on Ukraine’s electric grid left thousands of people without power. That attack used a “sophisticated” program called BlackEnergy that targeted industrial control systems, according to the report.

Hackers also caused “massive physical damage” to a German steel mill by taking over control processes and blocking the company’s efforts to shut down the facility.

Chaos, damage

Experts at the Nuclear Industry Summit say hackers focus on systems that control industrial and safety processes in important industrial facilities because that is the key to causing chaos and damage.

The most successful publicly known cyberattack on a nuclear facility saw malware cause serious damage to production equipment at an Iranian plant that was enriching nuclear materials. The virus was called Stuxnet, and apparently prompted the facility’s centrifuges to spin out of control and break down.

Computer security experts say the Stuxnet incident shows how a determined hacker can overcome cyber protection efforts by taking advantage of vulnerable employees.

In this case, small thumb drives, or small data storage devices, loaded with the virus were scattered in areas near the targeted facility. Apparently, someone picked up one and, curious about its contents, put it in a computer that controlled production processes.