This article comes from Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP and is authored by J. Daniel Skees and Arjun Prasad Ramadevanahalli.
As evidence that cyber attacks continue to threaten electric infrastructure in the United States, a report issued on December 14 by cybersecurity firm FireEye indicates that critical infrastructure industrial control systems (ICS) could be susceptible to a new type of malware. FireEye reported that the malware—dubbed “TRITON”—triggered the emergency shutdown capability of an industrial process within a critical infrastructure ICS.
This is not the first time that hackers have successfully targeted ICS. In 2013, hackers believed to be operating on behalf of a state-actor managed to take partial control of the Bowman Avenue Dam near Rye Brook, New York. More recently, reports emerged this past summer that hackers gained access to the operational grid controls of US-based energy firms. Because of the destructive potential of these types of breaches, critical electric and other utility infrastructure will remain highly-prized targets for future cyber attacks.
As the pace of reported cyber attacks on ICS continues to pick up, scrutiny of electric utilities’ compliance with the Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) reliability standards by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is likely to increase.
It is highly likely that electric utilities will receive data requests or informal outreach from FERC or NERC in the near future to determine whether those utilities have similar equipment that could be exploited, and if so, what steps they have taken to mitigate the threat. Even in the absence of such requests, these events provide a good opportunity for electric utilities to test the sufficiency of their CIP compliance programs in identifying and remediating such threats.
Filed Under: Cybersecurity
George Fleming says
There is a discussion of the problem at
George Fleming says
An EMP or solar storm could be as bad or worse than cyberwar for the same reason: loss of the cooling systems for the core and for the spent fuel, if there is any on site, and usually there is. It seems to be an extremely dangerous oversight that nuclear plants have not been designed so that the heat that must be removed from the core during a grid failure can be used to power the emergency cooling systems.
To me, this is just basic heat engine technology, which we have developed almost to perfection. But I am not an expert on nuclear plant design. Maybe there is a good reason they cannot be designed to cool themselves during a long power blackout. The diesel fuel for the emergency generators could run out long before the restoration of the electrical grid. Core meltdown is then inevitable, as is fire in the spent fuel which could be an even greater catastrophe. The Fukushima accident should be warning enough.
This problem may have been eliminated in newer nuclear plant designs, but they are for the future. For many years to come, we will be operating nuclear plants that could easily become as destructive as nuclear weapons.
“…Most [nuclear] station blackouts are assumed to be of short duration, concluded within 24 hours. With an electromagnetic pulse, however delays could extend from a short duration to months, and some hypothesize years, before power could be restored. Transformer parts can take one to two years to produce, and with potentially-reduced transportation efforts, maybe longer. Nuclear power plants typically have enough emergency diesel fuel to run for seven days, some up to thirty days, but all will need more fuel to continue the cooling operation in a prolonged station blackout. Depending on the size of the EMP and its effects, getting additional diesel to the plants in a timely manner may be difficult or impossible…
“..Each of these power plants has at least one and possibly more spent fuel pools. A long-term loss of outside power could interrupt the circulation of cooling water to the pools. Spent fuel pools carry depleted fuel for the reactor, up to five times the fuel in the core. Typically, this spent fuel has had considerable decay time reducing radioactivity and heat, but newer discharged fuel still produces heat and needs cooling. Housed in high density storage racks, contained in industrial-design buildings that vent to the atmosphere, radiation containment is not provided for the spent fuel racks. With a long outage, where emergency power may be unavailable or unsustainable, cooling may not be possible. In this event, the water will heat and boil away, uncovering the spent fuel. The exposed fuel rods could then cause fires as well as the potential release of radioactivity…”
George Fleming says
If the electrical grid fails, the nuclear plants melt down. This is a cheap way for someone to get hold of nuclear weapons.