NewsJuly 31, 2017 @ 12:00 PM

Nuclear Power Plants at Risk Due to Radiation Monitoring Flaws

Researchers have found a range of unpatched vulnerabilities in radiation monitoring devices (RMDs) that could be used by attackers to endanger critical infrastructure.

Ruben Santamarta, principal security consultant at IOActive, presented his findings in a white paper titled, “Go Nuclear: Breaking Radiation Monitoring Devices” at the Black Hat USA event last week. He found that the security shortcomings in RMDs could be significant, since the devices help detect radiation leaks and can alert organizations to issues at nuclear power plants.

The Research Process

RMDs are sophisticated devices that measure radiation. Critical infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants, seaports, border points and hospitals, are equipped with RMDs. The equipment helps to prevent threats such as the smuggling of nuclear material and contamination through radiation.

IOActive used its survey to discover the kinds of vulnerabilities that affect RMDs. The research focused on firmware reverse engineering, radio frequency analysis and hardware hacking by analyzing area monitors used at nuclear power plants — specifically the Mirion WRM2 protocol. Santamarta and his team discovered that they could leverage this protocol to introduce false information into communication channels, allowing either the simulation of a radiation leak or the manipulation of evacuation details.

The Response

All affected vendors were contacted as part of IOActive’s responsible disclosure policy. The firm provided technical details and spoke with the vendors to discuss both the potential impact of the flaws and vulnerability patching.

The IOActive white paper said that the three vendors — Ludlum, Mirion and Digi — initially acknowledged the report but did not address the issues. Digi and Mirion subsequently contacted Santamarta and his colleagues, informing him that they were undertaking collaborative work to patch the critical vulnerabilities uncovered in the research.

The Industrial Control System Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) also issued an alert about inadequate encryption for radio-based, telemetry-enabled devices from Mirion following Santamarta’s Black Hat presentation. The alert suggested that the successful exploitation of these flaws could give an errant outsider the opportunity to transmit fraudulent data or perform a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.

How Are Nuclear Power Plants Affected?

The IOActive white paper acknowledged that these flaws will probably remain unpatched for months, if not years, despite the change in approach from the RMD vendors, reported Bleeping Computer.

Patching the affected devices will be tough, since the problems are related to design flaws rather than software bugs, according to SecurityWeek. Santamarta and his colleagues suggested that increasing awareness of the possibility of such attacks can help affected organizations mitigate some of the risks.

Share this Article:
Mark Samuels

Tech Journalist

Mark Samuels is an experienced business technology journalist with an outstanding track record in research. He specializes in the role of chief information officers (CIOs) and is adept at helping executives understand the business benefits of complex technologies. Key areas of interest include innovation, digital transformation, cloud computing, mobility, information security, ecommerce and big data. Mark has written articles for national newspapers, including The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times. He has also produced features and columns for a range of IT trade publications, such as Computer Weekly, ZDNet, Tech Republic, IT Pro, Channel Pro, CBR and The Register.