Purdue University researchers are leading a government-academia initiative to enhance cybersecurity for nuclear power plants.
The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) has provided funding for the Purdue-led team to develop tools to measure risk and mitigate the effects of a hypothetical security breach.
Nuclear reactors are inherently safe and have several built-in safety mechanisms, but associate professor Hany Abdel-Khalik and his colleagues want to construct another layer of defense.
“Reactors are complex beasts. The nuclear community has a great number of scientists who have spent their entire careers thinking of all the different ways that things could go wrong,” said Abdel-Khalik. “Now things are becoming more digital and we’re relying on computers to make decisions, but computers aren’t human. They can make bad decisions if they are given bad data. That’s the advantage hackers could have right now.”
The researchers are spearheading their project based on an assumption that hackers have access to the raw data used to control a reactor. Although obtaining this information would be extremely difficult, the team wants to make the reactor control system smart enough to realize it’s being manipulated.
When reactors were designed initially, much more of the operation was manual. If an operator saw something wrong, he or she would intervene right away. Now, control systems are being digitized to make operational and safety-related decisions.
Several nations across the globe have reported cyberattacks on critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants in recent years, and the frequency and sophistication of the attacks is only increasing. This is because they’re high-reward targets for the attackers, Abdel-Khalik said.
“Attackers are always looking for ways to cause massive destruction, and nuclear reactors are very high-profile,” he said. “If they can say a reactor was hacked, that’s a big win for them. Even if no damage happens in the reactor and it is simply restarted.”
The NEUP funding is unique and effective because it allows labs and universities to work together. Abdel-Khalik believes that to solve such a complex issue, it will take collaboration between academia, government and industry.
“Academia has always been the birthplace for new ideas. Government labs can take an idea and nurture it to production, and then industry can customize a product for the various applications,” he said.
Image credits and content: Purdue University