There are certain things that everyone on planet Earth should be able to agree on. I say that as someone who periodically writes about issues that impact global security, in both the physical and cyberworlds, and who tries to bring a fact-based reasonable perspective to topics that are often rather overheated. For example, if you want to understand global politics and why Russia or North Korea might make some of the decisions that they do, it’s important to consider how different issues look from their perspectives, and you can certainly consider this information without endorsing their views.
With that said: Everybody on our pale blue dot that qualifies even nominally as a mammal capable of understanding speech should understand that screwing around with the automatic sensors and reporting systems that monitor the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, including the New Safe Confinement structure that replaced the original sarcophagus, is a very bad idea. In fact, attacks against nuclear power plant infrastructure really ought to be one of those rare areas in international cooperation where everyone agrees “Hey, maybe we just shouldn’t do this.” Nonetheless, Chernobyl’s monitoring system has now been hit, CNN reports, after the initial wave of global ‘NotPetya’ cyberattacks we first reported on yesterday.
The good news
The fact that the New Safe Confinement structure has been deployed already is good news indeed. While monitoring the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and its surrounding environment is still important, the original Chernobyl sarcophagus, which was built in the immediate aftermath of the Reactor #4 disaster, was a literal leaking time bomb. Extremely high radiation levels made it impossible to properly seal the structure, its support beams rested on structurally unsound walls that were damaged in the initial explosion, and a report in 1998 found that rainwater was leaking into the sarcophagus, eroding its support beams, and then flowing into the soil underneath the building.
In short, the sarcophagus would have collapsed at one point or another; Soviet scientists only expected it to last 20-30 years at most. Having automatic monitoring systems offline if we were still betting on the original sarcophagus not collapsing would have been a good deal worse than the current situation.
According to the Ukranian federal agency charged with monitoring the disaster site, radiation monitoring is being carried out manually with older equipment. The Ukranian agency’s statement also said that “technological systems of the station operate in the normal mode,” but that “in connection with the cyberattack, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant website is not working.” Tourism and visits to the site are not unknown (the slideshow below shows how some Polish explorers actually brought parts of Pripyat’s power grid back up briefly after decades of neglect), but the site is still actively monitored and considered hazardous without proper precautions.
White, black, or gray hats, can’t we agree that screwing around with already-exploded nuclear reactors (or those that are still operational) really ought to be off the table? Even if you count the United States’ Stuxnet efforts, there’s still a difference between attempting to prevent a country from enriching uranium and building nuclear weapons, and launching cyber attacks that could disrupt critical warning systems or, in an extreme case, actually provoke a criticality event.
Now read: How does nuclear energy work?
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