Energy

Nuclear Power Plants Still Using Pagers Due To Gov’t Regs

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Government regulations still force nuclear power plant officials to use pagers to communicate, making them extremely vulnerable to hacking or physical attacks, according to a new report published Thursday by a computer security company.

Researchers found that nuclear power plants often rely on such obsolete technology due to obscure government regulations. Pagers are used partially because the government states nuclear plants be able to communicate in areas where cell service is essentially nonexistent, even though pagers have been out of commercial use for decades and are incredibly insecure.

“Unfortunately, we discovered that communication through pagers is not secure at all,” researchers at the computer security company Trend Micro wrote in their report. “Since pager messages are typically unencrypted, attackers can view pager messages even at a distance – the only thing attackers need is a combination of some know-how on software-defined radio (SDR) and US$20 for a dongle.”

Though much of the data gathered through pagers is fairly unimportant, researchers state that when used in combination with easily obtainable information such as employee names, terrorists could quickly gain enough intelligence to send fake messages to allow an assault.

“Pages, it turns out, are considered a source of high quality passive intelligence,” the report continues. “During four months of observation, we saw messages containing information on contact persons, locations inside manufacturers and electricity plants, [and] thresholds set in industrial control systems.”

A similar cyber attack on a nuclear power plant was almost used four years ago to smuggle out material that could have allowed terrorists to build a nuclear “dirty bomb,” the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog told reporters earlier this month.

The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that an unidentified individual tried to smuggle a small amount of highly enriched uranium about four years ago, which could have been used to build a so-called “dirty bomb.”  The plant was struck by an extremely disruptive cyber-attack, but the IAEA declined to give any further details.

Pagers aren’t the only example of government bureaucracy harming the nuclear industry. Federal red tape adds millions of dollars in costs to U.S. nuclear plants. Each plant now spends an estimated $4.2 million every year to meet government paperwork requirements and another $4.4 million to pay government-mandated security staff, according to an American Action Forum study. In addition to paperwork requirement costs, the average plant spends approximately $14 million on various government fees.

It took an incredible 43 years to get approval to build America’s newest nuclear reactor at Watt Barr in Tennessee, due to a combination of scandals, red tape and environmental concerns. Things at the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) still move so slowly that it took nuclear regulators six months and three different attempts to give congressional overseers information they requested on the research budgets of projects.

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