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Student-faculty team investigates nuclear reactor cybersecurity


The University of Tulsa Tandy School of Computer Science is researching how to improve nuclear reactor cybersecurity. TU is partnering with Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Lab to conduct the research with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy — one of only three distributed at the national level. See the project summary.

Associate Professor of Computer Science Mauricio Papa and graduate students Zachary Hill (BS ’15, MS ’17) and Will Nichols (BS ’16) are designing a nuclear reactor model to study its operations and potential security threats. The design simulates WSU’s on-site nuclear reactor, which the faculty-student team visited in 2017.

nuclear reactor

(Left) Will Nichols and Zachary Hill

“Math, models and theoretical applications are used for simulation with distributed controllers and a network that allows messages to be sent back and forth,” Papa said.

TU’s nuclear reactor simulator in development is an inexpensive option for emulating a real network with the ability to test multiple scenarios. Papa said one of the biggest challenges of studying nuclear reactors is their age — the last nuclear reactor constructed in the United States went online in the 1970s, and most haven’t transitioned yet from analog to digital controls.

“Going digital would allow all controllers to be monitored on a network,” Papa said. “And since our simulator is already connected to a network, we can play with “what if” scenarios and cyberattacks and see what kind of effect it’s going to have on the actual reactor.”

Nichols, an electrical and computer engineering master’s student, focuses on the theoretical cybersecurity analysis of the Nuclear Radiation Center at WSU through the use of hybrid Attack Graphs. He reviews a list of every possible cyber physical element in the system to brainstorm how to change the reactor’s operations. The changes are coded as exploits and help identify unwanted activity with the reactor.

“It gives me an interesting edge into the cybersecurity industry,” Nichols said. Looking at physical elements of a reactor for my research is pretty rare.”

Hill, a first-year computer science doctoral student, is responsible for designing the simulation and will soon integrate the Attack Graphs Nichols developed.

“I made the simulation, and now we are going to see how we can break it,” Hill said. “If someone were to get into the network, hopefully we can catch what they’re doing and not let them cause disruption to the reactor’s operation or in the most extreme case, actual damage to the reactor.”

Papa said students interested in applied cybersecurity are in high demand because of the skill level of specialization required and its application to other critical infrastructures such as energy and oil and gas.