Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Nuclear Cyber Security and Its Discontents

The minority (that is, the Republicans) on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee released a report that shows a number of federal agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, exercising lax cyber security. In some instances, the brew is rather weak – antivirus software has not been updated at some agencies, which probably has Symantec worried - but there’s some substantial stuff in it, too.

This sums up the report’s finding on the NRC:

Yet just about every aspect of that process [addressing cyber security weaknesses] appears to be broken at the NRC. Problems were identified but never scheduled to be fixed; fixes were scheduled but not completed; fixes were recorded as complete when they were not.

The first thing to note is that this has nothing whatever to do with cyber security at nuclear energy facilities. In some ways, this report confuses network security with what is a much broader topic. Government agency network security has been low hanging fruit when one seeks an issue to publicize, which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.

Bill Gross, NEI senior project manager, engineering, who has done a lot of work on nuclear facility cyber security, wrote a blog post for us early last year outlining some of the steps the industry has taken to address the subject. Well worth a read for anyone interested in this issue. His conclusion:

No cyber security program will be 100% perfect.  These interim measures well position the plants to ensure that the public health and safety are maintained, and that the sites will reliably continue to make their significant contribution to the nation’s electrical supply.

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We can’t really answer for the NRC and what it might need to do to digitally clean its house. We can say that this is a partisan report. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member, keeps the pot at a simmer in presenting the report’s findings on his We site.

“Weaknesses in the federal government’s own cyber security have put at risk the electrical grid, our financial markets, our emergency response systems and our citizens’ personal information,” Dr. Coburn said.  “While politicians like to propose complex new regulations, massive new programs, and billions in new spending to improve cyber security, there are very basic – and critically important – precautions that could protect our infrastructure and our citizens’ private information that we simply aren’t doing.”

So, yes, partisan. I’m not sure the report addresses risks to infrastructure or financial markets – agencies overseeing them, perhaps, but that’s not the same thing. It seems to both want and not want regulation; it just depends on what’s being regulated. It’ll be interesting to see how or even if the NRC responds to this report.

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