US nuclear power regulator urged to reject limits on cyber protections
A nuclear power plant

A science advocacy group urged the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday to reject a longstanding industry request to limit cyber attack protections at nuclear plants, a day after the Trump administration publicly blamed Moscow for hacking into nuclear power and other energy infrastructure.

The Nuclear Energy Institute industry group petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2014 to limit the scope of the agency’s cyber-protection safeguards to only systems with a direct impact on safety. The institute said in the petition that such limits would be “less burdensome” for operators of nuclear power plants while being “adequately protective” of public health and safety.

The petition is “foolhardy at best and, at worse, downright dangerous,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advisory group.

The Department of Homeland Security and FBI on Thursday said that the Russian government hacking campaign on energy and other facilities stretched back at least two years.

“In light of the growing cyber threat to nuclear plants highlighted by yesterday’s alert, the agency should now simply reject it,” Lyman said.

NRC spokesman David McIntyre said the agency sent the institute a letter in September telling them it was deferring consideration of the petition until it completes a round of inspections related to cyber security. The inspections started late last year and will continue through 2019.

Systems that control the most critical safety equipment at nuclear plants are largely immune to cyber attacks because they are analog-based and not connected to the internet. But many other systems with key safety and security functions are digital-based and could be compromised via their internet connections, Lyman said.

Hackers could disable or reprogram systems including electronic locks, alarms, closed-circuit television cameras, and communications equipment, the group said. Some plants have equipment, such as cranes that move highly radioactive spent fuel, that use network-based systems that could be manipulated to cause an accident, it said.

The United States is the world leader in nuclear power, with 99 operating reactors. But the industry has suffered numerous closures in recent years in the face of a glut of cheap natural gas, a competing fuel for power plants, and soaring safety protection costs as a result of measures put in place after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

NEI spokesman John Keeley said his group had no comment on the request by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Phil Berlowitz