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US and UK to undertake joint cyber-security exercise to check nuclear security

31 March 2016

On March 31 the UK government announced plans to stage a simulation of a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant to test the readiness of utility companies and authorities to cope with this eventuality. This will be part of wider plans to cooperate on boosting the resilience of western countries’ nuclear infrastructure to terrorist attack.

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Western leaders will meet in Washington to attend a nuclear security summit convened by US President Barack Obama. During the two day summit, UK Prime Minister David Cameron will pledge British support to help secure nuclear sites across the globe and prevent terrorists seizing materials enabling them to make a ‘dirty bomb’ or carry out other types of nuclear blackmail.

UK Government sources said the exercise was not triggered by any credible intelligence about the threat of such an attack, but that it was prudent planning, giving the country the ability to test systems and learn from any deficiencies uncovered.

The plan will echo a similar exercise last year, which tested how the major banks could withstand a cyber-security attack.

A senior UK Government source told the Daily Mail that concerns raised around the security of civil nuclear sites in Belgium after the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels proved the need for such actions. Belgian nuclear plants at Doel and Tihange were evacuated following the Brussels attacks.

Two of the suicide bombers in the attacks also had video footage of the home of a senior official at a Flanders nuclear waste facility which contained materials that could have been used to mount a dirty bomb attack.

The UK Government recently said terrorists were also trying to develop the ability to launch cyber-attacks on UK targets such as air traffic control or hospitals, and expertise developed by the country’s signals intelligence agency GCHQ would be made available to other Western allies at the summit. GCHQ said recently it was monitoring threats to 450 UK companies in areas such as defence, energy and water supply.

The UK will also commit £10 million this year to improve security standards around nuclear plants and waste facilities.

The nuclear security summit, the fourth and final one held during Obama’s presidency, is aimed at enhancing the safety of domestic nuclear systems. Since the first summit in Washington in 2010, the states attending have agreed to reduce their stockpiles of potentially dangerous highly enriched uranium – the by-product of nuclear power generation – and strengthened the role of watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Over that time, 14 countries have committed to removing nuclear materials from their territory altogether, and many others have pledged to step up security and tackle nuclear smuggling, by stepping up checks at ports, for example.

In a statement setting out the agenda for the latest meeting, the White House said there was more to do. “We all need to do more together to enhance nuclear security performance, to dissuade and apprehend nuclear traffickers, to eliminate excess nuclear weapons and material, to avoid production of materials we cannot use, to make sure our facilities can repel the full range of threats we have already seen in our neighbourhoods, to share experiences and best practices, and to do so in ways that are visible to friends, neighbours, and rivals – and thereby provide assurance that we are effectively executing our sovereign responsibility.”

During the summit, the UK will offer to share its expertise on tackling cyber-crime with other countries. Japan, Korea, Turkey and Argentina have already said they would like to cooperate with the UK on this.

Separately, the UK Government also announced an exchange deal with the US, which will see the UK ship 700kg of nuclear waste from Dounreay in Scotland to be processed in America. In return, the US will send supplies of a different type of uranium to Euratom, the European nuclear agency, to be turned into medical isotopes that can then be used in diagnosing and treating cancer across Europe.

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