This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

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.

As cyber criminals, states and terrorist groups increase their online activities, the fear of a serious cyber attack is ever present. This is of particular concern because of the risk – even if remote – of a release of ionizing radiation as a result of such an attack, argues the report, Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities: Understanding the Risks. Moreover, even a small-scale cyber security incident at a nuclear facility would be likely to have a disproportionate effect on public opinion and the future of the civil nuclear industry.

Notwithstanding important recent steps taken by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to improve cyber security across the sector, the nuclear energy industry currently has less experience in this field than other sectors.

Digital route

This is partly due to the nuclear industry’s regulatory requirements, which have meant that digital systems have been adopted later than in other types of critical infrastructure. In addition, the industry’s long-standing focus on physical protection and safety has meant that while these aspects of risk response are now relatively robust, less attention has been paid to developing cyber security readiness. As a result, exploiting weaknesses in digital technology could be the most attractive route for those seeking to attack nuclear facilities without fear of interdiction.

The cyber security risk is growing as nuclear facilities become increasingly reliant on digital systems and make increasing use of commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ software, which offers considerable cost savings but increases vulnerability to hacking attacks. The trend to digitization, when combined with a lack of executive-level awareness of the risks involved, also means that nuclear plant personnel may not realize the full extent of this cyber vulnerability and are thus inadequately prepared to deal with potential attacks.

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 (as in the case of Stuxnet), but the commercial benefits of internet connectivity mean that nuclear facilities may now have virtual private networks and other connections installed, sometimes undocumented or forgotten by contractors and other legitimate third-party operators.

Hacking risk

Meanwhile, hacking is becoming ever easier to conduct, and more widespread: automatic cyber attack packages targeted at known and discovered vulnerabilities are now widely available; advanced techniques used by Stuxnet are now known and being copied; and search engines can readily identify critical infrastructure components that are connected to the internet.

In the light of these concerns, Chatham House undertook an 18-month project on the nexus between cyber security and nuclear security. By drawing on in-depth interviews with 30 industry practitioners, as well as policy-makers and academics, and convening three expert roundtables, the project sought to assess the major cyber security challenges facing the wider nuclear industry; to identify international policy measures that could help to enhance cyber security in the sector; and to help increase knowledge of current concerns in this area.

Its report examines the major cyber threats to civil nuclear facilities, focusing in particular on those that could have an impact on industrial control systems, and suggests some potential solutions to these challenges.

Main findings

The research identified the following major challenges for civil nuclear facilities:

Industry-wide challenges

The infrequency of cyber security incident disclosure at nuclear facilities makes it difficult to assess the true extent of the problem and may lead nuclear industry personnel to believe that there are few incidents. Moreover, limited collaboration with other industries or information-sharing means that the nuclear industry tends not to learn from other industries that are more advanced in this field.

A paucity of regulatory standards, as well as limited communication between cyber security companies and vendors, are also of concern.

This suggests that the industry’s risk assessment may be inadequate; as a consequence, there is often insufficient spending on cyber security.

Developing countries may be particularly at risk, because they have even fewer resources available to invest in cyber security.

Cultural challenges

Nuclear plant personnel, who are operational technology engineers, and cyber security personnel, who are information technology engineers, frequently have difficulty communicating, which can lead to friction. In many cases the problem is exacerbated by the off-site location of cyber security personnel.

Nuclear plant personnel often lack an understanding of key cyber security procedures, finding that the procedures documents produced by cyber security personnel do not communicate this information in language that is clear to them.

Cyber security training at nuclear facilities is often insufficient. In particular, there is a lack of integrated cyber security drills between nuclear plant personnel and cyber security personnel.

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.

This suggests that nuclear plants may lack preparedness for a large-scale cyber security emergency, particularly if one were to occur outside normal working hours.

Technical challenges

Many industrial control systems are ‘insecure by design’, since cyber security measures were not designed in from the beginning.

Standard IT solutions such as patching are difficult to implement at nuclear facilities, mainly owing to concern that patches could break a system and because of the commercial need to reduce plant downtime.

Supply chain vulnerabilities mean that equipment used at a nuclear facility risks compromise at any stage.

The report’s 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.