Nuclear Plant Security and Cyber Terrorism

How To Improve Nuclear Power Plant Security

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While in the above discussion I concentrated on the Davis-Besse accident, I should note that this one Slammer attack has much wider implications. After this nationwide attack the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee concluded that the American electric grid as a whole is controlled by a “Byzantine network riddled by security holes, including unsecured SCADA systems and by unprotected connections between plant and company business networks.”

How To Improve Nuclear Power Plant Security

In order to improve nuclear plant security it is essential to realize both the need for totally separating the corporate business networks from the plant networks and to realize that digital firewalls do not guarantee this separation. This separation must be absolute and software firewalls are not! Because the safety of the public is involved, the implementation of this separation cannot be left up to each plant owner or operator, but must be mandated by the NRC; otherwise the people living near nuclear power plants, (such as the residents of Long Island, N.Y.) can not feel safe.

Therefore, the NRC must totally forbid not only the remote operation of nuclear plants, but also the linking of plant operations networks with corporate LANs (local area networks). The convenience and cost savings associated with these corporate links cannot justify the risk they cause to the public. This also means that the NRC should require total separation between the corporate networks of utilities and the SCADA networks of the plants. These SCADA networks control the remote terminal units (RTUs) sprinkled throughout the plants, directly monitoring and/or controlling the operation of power plant equipment.

As I will be discussing in more detail in the coming articles, the steps to be taken to guarantee plant safety and security are not limited to providing digital separation. For example, one must also guarantee both the reliability of the data reaching the operators AND must protect the plant from operator errors, which can be unintended OR INTENTIONAL. The 21st-century interpretation of Murphy’s law says that it is just as possible for an operator to smuggle a bomb into the control room as it is to smuggle in a software package.

Therefore, the protection in nuclear power plants must be served by both redundancy and automation. In addition, the redundancy should not be a simple backup, but a triple- redundancy voting system implemented for both the hardware and the software of the plant. This means that in all nuclear power plants, all critical measurements and status indicators would be made by three accurate sensors, and the control system would act on the “majority view” which would automatically schedule the “disagreeing sensor” for maintenance and recalibration. The same would apply to all software packages including SCADA, SPDS, PPC, etc. networks in the plant. Similarly, in case of the digital systems and networks, as soon as one disagrees with the “majority view,” that one would be disabled and checked for virus or worm attacks.

In the area of protecting the plant from intentional or unintentional operator errors, I would provide hardwired interlocks on all critical safety systems and would configure the controls in such a way that the operators cannot bypass them or shut them down. In addition, I would set up a national review board that would not only train and check the background of operators, but would also arrange for the review of all existing process control loops in all 125 nuclear power plants to make sure that the conditions that have caused the over 100 accidents7 of the past are not still present in any of them.

In the area of nuclear waste management, we know that each reactor produces 20 tons of nuclear waste per year, and this waste is locally stored, usually in steel casks at temporary waste sites. These casks can be penetrated by regular weapons will release radioactive cesium gas. While these waste sites can be guarded 24 hours a day, the only safe solution would be to have a permanent waste repository. In the meanwhile, process control can much improve the security of these waste sites right now.

In addition to making the nuclear power plants more secure I would also require the NCR to use the tools of process control to improve the security of the uranium enrichment, transportation and waste storage (including military waste) in order to minimize the potential for theft. For obvious reasons, here I will not elaborate on the tools process control can provide to monitor and protect such sites, but just mention that it should be utilized if we want to protect societies around the globe from possible “dirty bomb” attacks.

I will continue this series in the January issue.

Béla Lipták, PE, control consultant, is also editor of the Instrument Engineers’ Handbook and is seeking new co-authors for the for coming new edition.

1 -  These attacks might have a variety of causes and have already started. For example in April this year the cyber-infrastructure of Estonia and in August that of Georgia was successfully attacked, not by religious fanatics hiding in mountain caves, but (probably) by the sophisticated software engineers of Russia.
2 - This protection is already needed because for example the Web site already provides software for “Electronic Jihad Application” which can be used for attacking any Web site with DOS (denial of service) worms. The method by which DOS worms can enter control software is the same that can be used to shut down an airport or the electric grid of a nation.
3 - Three Mile Island - USA, Chernobil - Ukraine, Chalk River - Canada, Windsckale Pile -England, Greifswalld - Germany, Mihama, Tsuruga and Tokaimura - Japan, Kansai, Areve and Tricastin - France, Kystin – Russia, Hungary, Paks block 2 and elsewhere.
4 - For example in January, 2003 the SQL Slammer worm disrupted the operation of some 13,000 ATMs on the Bank of America network or in 2008 the Russians shut down the communication network of Georgia. The American government maintains a Cyber Terrorist Watch List, yet it has found that during the first half of 2008, only 1% of the cyber attacks came from sources on that list, while 35% originated elsewhere from within the United States.
5 - There is over 2,000 tons of weapons grade highly enriched uranium in storage around the world and some of these are already supplying a black market. For example, in November 2007 a gang was arrested in Slovakia that was trafficking in uranium which could have been used to build dirty bombs (other such arrests been reported from Russia, Kazahstan, China and Lybia). 50 kg of 85% uranium is the minimum requirement for building a nuclear bomb. In addition to weapons grade waste, the spent fuel rods from regular reactors are also in temporary storage. The United States alone is storing some 30,000 tons of spent fuel rods and 380,000 m3 of high level radioactive waste. Because no permanent disposal method been found, the nuclear waste is stored in water basins or in steel casks by the individual nuclear power plants. In the USA, weapons grade plutonium from dismantling nuclear weapons is stored in casks outside Amarillo, Texas. Regular reactors are also in temporary storage. The United States alone is storing some 30,000 tons of spent fuel rods and 380,000 m3 of high level radioactive waste. Because no permanent disposal method been found, the nuclear waste is stored in water basins or in steel casks by the individual nuclear power plants. In the USA, weapons grade plutonium from dismantling nuclear weapons is stored in casks outside Amarillo, Texas.
6 - A worm is a self-replicating virus that does not alter files but resides in active memory and duplicates itself there. Worms use parts of an operating system that are automatic and usually invisible to the user. It is common for worms to be noticed only when their replication has already consumed system resources, slowing or halting the operation of the system. They differ from viruses as viruses need a host file, make their presence known by presenting messages and take up computer memory leading to system crashes. Worms on the other hand exist inside of other files, often in Word or Excel documents and cause the entire document to travel from computer to computer as a worm. The Slammer Worm, also known as Sapphire and SQL Hell is the fastest computer worm yet in history. It infected more than 90% of vulnerable hosts within 10 minutes and reached its full scanning rate (of more than 55 milion scans/second) in 3 minutes.
7 - This would include not only the operating plants, but also the 13 plants that have been shut down and the 10 plants that have been decommissioned.
8 - Past accidents included the partial meltdown at Three Miles Island caused by a failed relief valve and faulty level and temperature sensors, Chernobil caused by the disabling of the control computer ny the operators and a number of others including Chalk River, Canada, Windsckale Pile, England, Greifswalld, Germany, Mihama, Tsuruga and Tokaimura in Japan, Areve, Tricastin, etc,France, Kystin, Russia and elsewhere.
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