Could Cyber-warfare or Cyber-Terrorists Potentially Force a Nuclear Power Plant to Meltdown?

December 20, 2017

Blog Post #1000

Could Cyber-warfare or Cyber-Terrorists Potentially Force a Nuclear Power Plant to Meltdown?

Jeff W. Horton

“—and the local sheriff’s office informed us only moments ago that they have done all that they can do to evacuate the area, given the extremely congested roadways which are already virtually nothing but parking lots. The National Guard is also being deployed, although few believe they will be able to evacuate so many in such a brief period of time. If you’ve just joined us, we have some very important, late-breaking news. New York City, along with the Department of Homeland Defense, held a joint press conference just fifteen minutes ago, announcing that a serious problem was detected at the Indian Lake nuclear power plant only two hours ago. The problem, which has been closely monitored since, is reported to be a problem with the coolant system at the plant, a problem which could very well lead to a meltdown. While not yet calling such a meltdown imminent, the government has issued an evacuation for anyone living or working within thirty miles of the Indian Lake nuclear power plant, warning of a deadly threat from radiation fallout facing anyone within the evacuation zone. We’ve invited Dr. Marcella Blanco to join us; she is an expert with the CDC. Welcome, Dr. Blanco, thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me.”

“Dr. Blanco, if both reactors do somehow melt down, how bad will it be? Will it result in many deaths?”

“Absolutely. Early estimates from a decade ago suggested that at least one hundred thousand people would receive a fatal dose of radiation. That area has seen a significant amount of growth over the past decade, however, so the number has climbed to perhaps as high as one hundred twenty-five thousand people.”

The anchor sat silently, looking stunned for a moment. It was one of those rare moments of silence on live television when no one speaks. One of the producers must have yelled at her through her earpiece because she suddenly jolted out of it.

“Excuse me, Dr. Blanco, but you’re saying over one hundred twenty-five thousand people are going to die tonight?”

Her face was still pale, white as a sheet.

“Well, if both reactors melt down, as many as one hundred twenty-five thousand people would likely be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation, yes. Depending on their level of exposure, death could take days, weeks, possibly even months to occur.”

“If someone cannot get away in time, is there anything they can do?”

“Anyone who is within ten to twenty miles of the plant and is unable to leave should get inside and as far underground as possible. But let me please reiterate that this is a very serious danger to everyone in the area. If at all possible, everyone within a thirty-mile radius should evacuate immediately. Please don’t wait until it’s too late.”

“Thank you, Dr. Blanco.”

“You’re very welcome.”

The news anchor turned to face the camera.

“Next up, we have Jason Michaels, a former consultant to the Department of Homeland Security. Welcome Mr. Michaels, it’s great to have you with us today.”

“Thank you, Michelle; it’s great to be here, though I wish it were under better circumstances of course.”

“Of course,” she repeated. “So, Jason, do you have any idea what happened at the plant; was it some kind of equipment failure?”

“From what I’m told, Michelle, at approximately 2:05 p.m. today, the systems at the plant that control the water used for cooling the control rods in both reactors suddenly shut down, but only after sending instructions to the programmable logic controllers to close all valves in the cooling system. At this time the PLCs continue to be unresponsive and all valves remain closed. Once the super-heated water evaporates, the rods will be exposed, and the reactors will melt down. I’ll tell you something else, too…the most disturbing aspect of this disaster is that the shutdown appears to have been done intentionally by someone, remotely.”

“So, the system was shut down remotely. Why would someone with the power company have done that intentionally, while the plants are still in operation; isn’t that dangerous?”

“Very. Apparently, the systems were not shut down by anyone at the plant though. Based on all the information I’ve been able to gather, everyone associated with the Indian Lake plant denies having anything to do with what’s happened. My contacts told me that the system wasn’t designed like that anyway. That’s why this was, in my opinion, an act of terrorism.”

“Wow, that is really frightening!” exclaimed the anchor, staring in disbelief. “How could an unauthorized person access the water control system remotely? Why would that even be possible?”

“I asked that same question. It seems that the company installed the remote access capability, so they would be able to activate the water control pumps remotely in the event of some kind of accident, in case there was no one able to do it at the plant itself. Unfortunately, with so many systems connected to the Internet these days, it’s possible—let me stress possible—that someone hacked in, circumvented the considerable security, and shut them down remotely.”

“But wouldn’t it require substantial resources to be able to pull something like that off without being caught?”

“Yes, it would. Typically, only nation states have the kind of access to the resources needed to pull something like this off, not to mention the skills. It might be possible that an individual could do this I suppose, but I don’t see how.”

“Does the DHS have any idea where the attack originated?”

“Well, as you noted earlier, I no longer work at the DHS. A source of mine does still work there, however, and they called me thirty minutes after they learned the systems had been shut down.”

“What did they tell you?”

“They told me that they had traced the IP address of the intruder.”

“To where?” asked the anchor.


Excerpt from Cybersp@ce, Cybsesp@ce Series Book One


In my 2013 novel, Cybersp@ce, the fictional Indian Lake nuclear power plant in New York is attacked. Fictional programmable logic controllers, which control the reactor coolant system, are hacked and disabled, eventually resulting in a reactor meltdown, and the subsequent release of radiation that results in the deaths of 100,000 people. Relax people; it’s fiction, or is it?

In 2011 an earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a Tsunami some 45-feet in height, which damaged the cooling system at the Fukushma nuclear power plant there,  triggering a meltdown, and the release of radiation that could have led to significant loss of human life.

“Following a major earthquake, a 15-metre tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident on 11 March 2011. All three cores largely melted in the first three days.”

Fukushima Accident – World Nuclear Association…of…/fukushima-accident.aspx

The Japanese evacuated some 100,000 people from the area, which prevented deaths or reports of major illnesses (yet). So, I probably should have done a lot more research, right? Well, that probably is true. But in my defense, in Cybersp@ce we’re talking about New York. Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC), the power plant on which Indian Lake was based, is a three-unit nuclear power plant station located in Buchanan, New York, just south of Peekskill. It sits on the east bank of the Hudson River, about 36 miles (58 km) north of Midtown Manhattan. Imagine trying to evacuate 8.5 million people! Again, if you live in the greater New York area you can relax, a little. The Indian Point plant is scheduled to shut down in 2022, largely in part to concerns over a “natural disaster” devastating New York. Reading between the lines I have to imagine that means man-caused disaster…oh, how impolitic of me, we don’t use Obama double-speak anymore. Please allow me to restate; I have to imagine they are worried about terrorism attacks on the plant more than they are natural disasters, since earthquakes in New York are well, not something we see every day.

So, we’ve established that loss of secondary systems, like the programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which control the pumps that keep the reactors cool could, in fact, possibly lead to a meltdown. So back to the original question, Could Cyberwarfare or Cyber-Terrorists Potentially Force a Nuclear Power Plant to Meltdown?  I’ll have to leave a definitive answer to that question to the experts. It certainly would appear to be possible, given the amount of concern by so many knowledgeable people. I spent decades in the IT field and I can say, with some confidence, that sometimes it’s not only a good idea to unplug from the Internet, it can be the difference between life and death.

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