UNITED NATIONS — The "nightmare scenario" is rising for a hacking attack on a nuclear power plant's computer system that causes the uncontrolled release of radiation, the United Nations' deputy chief warned Thursday.
Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told a Security Council meeting that extremists and "vicious non-state groups" are actively seeking weapons of mass destruction "and these weapons are increasingly accessible."
Non-state actors can already create mass disruption using cyber technologies — and hacking a nuclear plant would be a "nightmare scenario," he said.
The open council meeting focused on ways to stop the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by extremist groups and criminals. Members unanimously approved a resolution to strengthen the work of the council committee monitoring what countries are doing to prevent "non-state actors" from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction, known as WMDs.
Eliasson said there are legitimate concerns about the security of stockpiles of radioactive material suitable for making nuclear weapons but that are outside international regulation.
In addition, he said, "scientific advances have lowered barriers to the production of biological weapons."
"And emerging technologies, such as 3D printing and unmanned aerial vehicles, are adding to threats of an attack using a WMD," Eliasson said.
He said the international community needs robust defenses to stay ahead of this technological curve. "Preventing a WMD attack by a non-state actor will be a long-term challenge that requires long-term responses," Eliasson said.
U.N. disarmament chief Kim Won-soo said the new resolution recognizes "the growing threats and risks associated with biological weapons" and the need for the 193 U.N. member states, international groups and regional organizations to step-up information sharing on these threats and risks.
Kim said it is important that the Security Council keep up its focus on preventing deadly weapons from getting into the hands of extremists and criminals, but it also needs to study how to respond if prevention fails.
"The consequences of an attack would be disastrous and we must be prepared," he said.
Eliasson said that "a biological attack would be a public health disaster," but that there is no global institution capable of responding.
Brian Finlay, president of the Stimson Center in Washington, which has been supporting the work of the Security Council committee since 2004, said the resolution requiring all countries to take action to prevent non-state actors from getting WMD "has provided a near unprecedented rallying point for global efforts to prevent terrorist acquisition of these weapons."
But challenges remain, he said, citing a steady increase in nuclear, biological and chemical incidents around the globe, "including notably by non-state actors." He also cited growing access to the internet and potentially illegal technology transfers, saying there is "evidence that terrorist groups with regional or global ambitions continue to seek weapons of mass destruction."
He called for civil society, industry and the general public to support the campaign against the growing threat of the world's most dangerous weapons falling into the wrong hands.