World’s Nuclear Facilities Vulnerable to Cyber-Attacks

As hackers continue to rampage through closely-guarded information systems and databases with monotonous regularity, there is a tempting new target for cyber-attacks: the world’s nuclear facilities.

A warning has already been sounded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has urged the world community to intensify efforts to protect nuclear facilities from possible attacks.

“We need to drain the swamp and stop developing technologies that are vulnerable to catastrophic attacks.” —Randy RydellPointing out the nuclear industry was not immune to such attacks, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano says there should be a serious attempt at protecting nuclear and radioactive material – since “reports of actual or attempted cyber-attacks are now virtually a daily occurrence.”

The United States, whose defence networks at the Pentagon and also its intelligence agencies have already been compromised by hackers largely from Russia and China, is increasingly concerned about possible cyber-attacks by terrorist organisations – specifically the Islamic State (IS) with its heavy and sophisticated presence on social media.

Ironically, the United States reportedly collaborated with Israel to launch a virus attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme years ago.

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Tariq Rauf, director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS nuclear power plants and the nuclear industry rely intensively on computer systems and computer codes.

“Any corruption, malware or targeted attacks potentially could have catastrophic consequences for nuclear safety and security,” he warned.

In this regard, he said, it is deplorable that Israel and the United States targeted Iran’s uranium enrichment programme in past years with malware and viruses, thus initiating unprovoked cyber warfare, he added.

Stuxnet, the computer virus introduced into the Iranian nuclear programme by these two countries, has now escaped into other programmes in other countries, said Rauf, the former head of IAEA’s Verification and Security Policy Coordination unit.

“This clearly demonstrates that cyber warfare agents cannot be contained, can spread uncontrollably and can potentially create many hazards for critical infrastructure in the nuclear field,” he said.

He said cyber warfare at the state level is much more dangerous and difficult to defend against than cyber-attacks by hackers, though the hacking of nuclear safety and security systems by amateurs or criminals also pose major risks for radioactive and nuclear materials.

Randy Rydell, a former senior political officer at the U.N’s Office of Disarmament Affairs (ODA), told IPS the real question here is not capabilities but motivation: “Why would someone wish to launch such an attack?”

The answer, he said, is political.

“We need to drain the swamp and stop developing technologies that are vulnerable to catastrophic attacks,” said Rydell, former senior counsellor and Report Director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Commission.

IAEA’s Amano pointed out that last year alone there were cases of random malware-based attacks at nuclear power plants, with such facilities being specifically targeted.

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