February 14, 2018 / 3:22 PM / in 4 months

U.S. Energy Department forming cyber protection unit for power grids

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on Wednesday it is establishing an office to protect the nation’s power grid and other infrastructure against cyber attacks and natural disasters.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Energy, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal unveiled this week included $96 million in funding for the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the DOE “plays a vital role in protecting our nation’s energy infrastructure from cyber threats, physical attack and natural disaster, and as secretary, I have no higher priority.”

Last July, the DOE helped U.S. firms defend against a hacking campaign that targeted power companies including at least one nuclear plant. The agency said that the attacks did not have an impact on electricity generation or the grid, and that any impact appeared to be limited to administrative and business networks.

The previous month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had issued an alert to industrial companies, warning that for months hackers had targeted nuclear reactors and other power industry infrastructure, using tainted emails to harvest credentials and gain access to networks.

In some cases hackers succeeded in compromising the networks of their targets, but the report did not identify specific victims.

Nuclear power experts, such as Dave Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists nonprofit group, have said reactors have a certain amount of immunity from cyber attacks because their operation systems are separate from digital business networks. But over time it would not be impossible for hackers to potentially do harm, he said.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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