Voice

Where Fukushima meets Stuxnet: The growing threat of cyber war

The Japanese nuclear crisis, though still unfolding, may, in a way, already be yesterday's news. For a peek at tomorrow's, review the testimony of General Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command. Testifying before Congress this week and seeking support to pump up his agency budget, the general argued that all future conflicts would involve cyber warfare tactics and that the U.S. was ill-equipped to defend itself against them.

Alexander said, "We are finding that we do not have the capacity to do everything we need to accomplish. To put it bluntly, we are very thin, and a crisis would quickly stress our cyber forces. ... This is not a hypothetical danger."

The way to look at this story is to link in your mind the Stuxnet revelations about the reportedly U.S. and Israeli-led cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and the calamities at the Fukushima power facilities over the past week. While seemingly unconnected, the stories together speak to the before and after of what cyber conflict may look like. Enemies will be able to target one another's critical infrastructure as was done by the U.S. and Israeli team (likely working with British and German assistance) targeting the Iranian program and burrowing into their operating systems, they will seek to produce malfunctions that bring economies to their knees, put societies in the dark, or undercut national defenses.

Those infrastructures might well be nuclear power systems and the results could be akin to what we are seeing in Japan. (Although one power company executive yesterday joked to me that many plants in the U.S. would be safe because the technology they use is so old that software hardly plays any role in it at all. This hints at a bit of a blessing and a curse in the fractured U.S. power system: it's decentralized which makes it hard to target overall but security is left to many power companies that lack the sophistication or resources to anticipate, prepare for or manage the growing threats.)

Importantly, not only does the apparent success of the Stuxnet worm demonstrate that such approaches are now in play but it may just be the tip of the iceberg. I remember over a decade ago speaking to one of the top U.S. cyber defenders who noted that even during the late 90s banks were losing millions and millions every year to cyber theft -- only they didn't want to report it because they felt it would spook customers. (Yes.) Recently, we have seen significant market glitches worldwide that could easily have been caused by interventions rather than just malfunctions. A couple years back I participated in a scenario at Davos in which just such a manipulation of market data was simulated and the conclusion was it wouldn't take much to undermine confidence in the markets and perhaps even force traders to move to paper trading or other venues until it was restored. It wouldn't even have to be a real cyber intrusion -- just the perception that one might have happened.

What makes the nuclear threat so unsettling to many is that it is invisible. It shares this with the cyber threat. But the cyber attacks have other dimensions that suggest that General Alexander is not just trying to beef up his agency's bank accounts with his description of how future warfare will always involve a cyber component. Not only are they invisible but it is hard to detect who has launched them, so hard, in fact, that one can imagine future tense international relationships in which opposing sides were constantly, quietly, engaging in an undeclared but damaging "non-war," something cooler than a Cold War because it is stripped of rhetoric and cloaked in deniability, but which might be much more damaging. While there is still ongoing debate about the exact definition of cyber warfare there is a growing consensus that the threats posed by both state-sponsored and non-state actors to power grids, telecom systems, water supplies, transport systems and computer networks are reaching critical levels.

This is the deeply unsettling situation effectively framed by General Alexander in his testimony and rather than having been obscured by this week's news it should only have been amplified by it.

JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Secretary Chu gets it exactly right regarding America’s nuclear future

Yesterday, the Obama administration swiftly, strongly and correctly took a stand for a reasoned approach to nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. Perhaps learning from the over-reaction that followed the Deep Water Horizon incident, Secretary Chu made it absolutely clear in remarks before the Congress, that while the U.S. must learn from the Japanese crisis, nuclear must remain part of America's on-going energy mix.

Chu said: "The Administration is committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry. Safety remains at the forefront of our effort to responsibly develop America's energy resources, and we will continue to incorporate best practices and lessons learned into that process. To meet our energy needs, the Administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power. "

The reason this view is on target is simple: even as we watch the tragedy of errors and miscalculations unfolding at the TEPCO plants, nuclear remains by far the lowest risk form of energy production currently available at mass scale. Twenty percent of the world's energy comes from nuclear and there is literally no way the world can meet both rising demand and the desire to reduce carbon emissions without increasing significantly our stock of nuclear power plants.  The current realistic alternative to nuclear for providing a significant portion of the earth's energy needs are all fossil fuels which are more dangerous to get, to refine, to distribute and to use given their impact on the environment. From the Massey mining disaster to Deep Water Horizon to the wars in the Middle East we have plenty of front page evidence of the risks associated with fossil fuels. Over 100,000 people have died in coal mining accidents in the U.S. in the past century alone. In contrast, over the past half century, the track record of nuclear safety is exemplary. In the worst disaster ever, Chernobyl, the death toll is estimated to be between 47 and 70. The confirmed death toll at Three Mile Island is zero.

When Dr. Jeffrey Sachs made this point today on Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski lamented that only if there were pictures that showed those risks as dramatically as those currently filling the screen about Japan ‘s nuclear disaster. As she spoke however, the screen was filled with images of tsunami damage.  In other words, precisely the images she wanted were on the screen as she spoke, because as Sachs rightly pointed out, fossil fuel use produces emissions which produce climate change impacts like rising sea-levels and more extreme weather patterns that will both amplify the negative impact of everything from earthquakes to major storms in coastal regions.

As is inevitably the case in the wake of disasters like that taking place at the Fukushima installation in Japan at the moment, there will a political furor. That's what happened after the Deepwater Horizon incident and within months, America had returned to its senses and resumed necessary drilling operations in the Gulf. Of course, we did so with a heightened sense of responsibility for maintaining and monitoring appropriate safety standards and that is important in this case too.

Paramount among the reforms that ought to be considered -- beyond upping the physical standards of plants to withstand even greater stresses -- is the obligation that nuclear power generators share more openly and automatically and in real time detailed radiation information internationally. The lack of available data on what is going on in the Fukushima plants and on the nature of the radiation being emitted suggests the operators have seemingly focused more attentively on controlling information rather than radiation leaks. While that may be harsh, nuclear plant disasters are inherently international in nature given the cross-border risks associated with radiation and any such risks should automatically be handled in a considerably more transparent fashion than they are now.

In addition, the apparent inability of the TEPCO managers to reach local fire and other emergency response officials due to the damage caused by the earthquake also suggests an area in which redundancies ought to be obligatory everywhere. The reality is that most of the new nuclear projects under way in the world today are in emerging markets, developing countries with fewer resources than in Japan. This is worrisome and the international community needs to recognize a special obligation not only to help set and maintain standards but to have rapid response capabilities in place to augment the ability of these countries to deal with emergencies.

The post-Fukushima reforms need to be undertaken not just in Japan, therefore, but worldwide as this event has very usefully revealed weaknesses that need to be addressed worldwide and areas where greater international cooperation is not only needed now but will be even more important in the future.