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Many nuclear plants wide open to cyberattacks

If you stop to think about what hackers can do on a grand scale, there is reason to be concerned. It's one thing when hackers are sending you phishing emails, then inserting malware onto your computer system so they can steal your personal information.

That's terrible, so be sure to keep yourself protected with the most up-to-date anti-virus programs at the Komando Security Center. But what if hackers took over a much more sensitive computer system, like the one running a nuclear power plant?

That's exactly the fear among a group of researchers at the British think tank Chatham House. They say many civilian nuclear power plants around the world are vulnerable to attack.

Not only could that cause widespread disruption of the energy grid, but it could potentially damage the nuclear reactors themselves. That damage could result in the release of ionizing radiation, which can cause death if people are exposed to it for too long.

Nuclear accidents aren't unheard of. Just think about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that seriously damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors. Radioactive gas was released for about six days.

The Chatham House researchers say hackers could have a relatively easy time of causing the same type of damage. The problem is due in large part to lax computer security systems in place at nuclear facilities.

According to the Chatham House, many plants aren't "air gapped" from the Internet. An "air gapped" computer is one that has no remote connections. Because many nuclear control systems aren't air gapped, hackers could potentially get into nuclear plants' internal systems remotely.

Even if they were air gapped, though, the researchers found that hackers could easily bypass security measures by bringing in portable media, like a thumb drive, to infect the nuclear plant with malware. That's the same way the damaging Stuxnet virus likely got on the computers controlling the Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

Worse, the cybersecurity experts at nuclear facilities don't communicate well with the workers running the facility. The Chatham House researchers say there are different corporate cultures within facilities, where they each do their own jobs and don't share potentially lifesaving information with each other.

Some cybersecurity people also take a reactive stance on security, rather than a proactive one. They're sometimes ready to fix a problem, like hacking, after it's already happened and caused damage. However, the researchers said that many nuclear security experts don't even have systems in place to alert them when a hack is occurring.

The potential threat of hackers attacking nuclear power facilities is scary, but what's worse is the researchers say there isn't much anyone can do about it, yet. What needs to change is the corporate culture within these facilities, where cybersecurity experts are compelled to be proactive, and to share information with the plants' employees. The findings of the Chatham House researchers hopefully are the first step in doing that.

A major cyberattack on America's infrastructure is almost a certainty. Find out how you can start preparing now so you and your family get through it OK.

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