Camille Palmer (left), associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, is a co-principle investigator, along with two cybersecurity experts at Oregon State, on a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission grant to develop methods for ensuring nuclear reactors are safe from hackers.
Photographer: Hannah O’Leary

Engineering researchers at Oregon State University are collaborating on a new project to help protect the nation’s nuclear power plants from a possible cyberattack.

The three-year project, funded with a $500,000 grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will develop tools and frameworks for assessing the cybersecurity of nuclear plant control systems, enabling nuclear specialists to predict, via computer simulation, the impact of a potential cyberattack on a nuclear plant.

“The unlikely, but plausible, event of a cyberattack on a nuclear facility could be disastrous,” said Camille Palmer, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, who is principal investigator on the project. “It is imperative that the nuclear industry understand and have a methodology to quantify this risk, so as to best protect critical assets at the plant and ensure safety.”

Palmer, whose professional interests emphasize international nuclear security and nonproliferation, is joined on the project by two cybersecurity experts as co-PIs. Rakesh Bobba, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, specializes in the design of secure and trustworthy networked and distributed computer systems, with an emphasis in cyber-physical critical infrastructures. Yeongjin Jang, assistant professor of computer science, focuses on computer systems security, especially for identifying and analyzing emerging attacks.

In recent years, cyberattacks involving malicious software — such as the Stuxnet worm thought to have crippled Iranian nuclear facilities in 2009 — have demonstrated the ability to target industrial control systems, even where facilities are protected by multiple layers of security and are on an isolated network. Those control systems are similar in nature to those used in nuclear facilities.

“With the increasing adoption of digital instrumentation, control and communication systems, it is vital to understand the interdependencies between the cyber infrastructure in nuclear control systems and the underlying physical plant operations,” Bobba said. “Critically, we need to establish a risk-based methodology to assess the impact of vulnerabilities and cyberattacks on such control systems.” 

The Oregon State research will employ what is known as dynamic probabilistic risk assessment — an established methodology for simulating a physical scenario that develops over time – in this case a cyber-attack. To this end, the team will analyze the dependencies between the cyber and physical systems, as well as identify potential attack paths. The research will link cybersecurity threat models with RELAP5-3D, a nuclear power plant simulator developed at Idaho National Laboratory for reactor safety analysis. 

This grant is the first externally funded collaboration at Oregon State spanning the two engineering disciplines in the emerging field of nuclear cybersecurity. Palmer says the collaborative aspect of the work is particularly appealing to her.

“The NRC is working to quantify a risk-informed approach to regulating the nuclear industry to prevent and protect against cyberattacks,” Palmer said. “This project integrates expertise across the College of Engineering to link cybersecurity threat models with state-of-the-art simulation tools. The research will provide risk-informed security metrics through understanding of cyber risks and vulnerabilities associated with nuclear plant instrumentation and control.”

Three high school students received awards for their computer science research at Oregon State University. Audrey Au, Caroline Gao, and Geraldine Noa-Guerva were winners of the 2021 Aspirations in Computing award for the Oregon and Washington chapter of National Center for Women & Information Technology. Au and Gao also received honorable mention for the national NCWIT AiC award.

All three worked in the area of human-computer interaction, specifically how well problem-solving software supports different genders in problem-solving activities. The students worked with Margaret Burnett, distinguished professor of computer science, and Anita Sarma, associate professor of computer science, who co-direct The GenderMag Project.

“Working in Dr. Burnett’s lab was a genuinely life-changing experience for me,” Gao said. “I realized the full potential of technology to drive equity and social good. The intersectional approach we took to every issue reframed my perception of many societal issues.”

After her research experience, Gao launched a cultural awareness project, called The World in Us, with other students, including Au. The two taught classes through Oregon State’s Talented and Gifted Programs for elementary school students. The project was highlighted by the Albany Democrat Herald.

Au is co-author on an article that won a best paper award at the 2021 International Conference of Software Engineering. She wants to continue tostudy human-computer interaction to facilitate the inclusion of groups often marginalized and underrepresented in tech.

Noa-Guerva also plans to use the knowledge she gained through her research experience about inequities in computing when she pursues a career in technology. She is currently giving virtual English and programming lessons to children in Peru.

“Having these bright, passionate young women in our research group over summer was a privilege. Through their hard work they helped further our research. We look forward to mentoring them as they progress through their careers,” Sarma said.

In April 2016, Oregon State University engineering doctoral students Dylan Jones and Seth McCammon deploy a Seabotix remotely operated vehicle to perform an autonomous underwater survey at the North Energy Test Site off the coast of Newport, OR.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office recently announced support of up to $22 million for 10 marine energy research projects, including three represented by researchers from Oregon State University’s College of Engineering. (The award amounts for each project are under negotiation.) 

“For industry to move toward commercialization, we need to utilize all of our available resources,” said  Daniel R. Simmons, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, in a Dec. 22 article on the DOE website. “With this funding opportunity, we addressed several critical gaps in the marine energy industry to advance early-stage R&D and build testing infrastructure, as well as foster collaboration among non-federal research entities.”

One of the proposed projects, led by Oregon State, will consider the co-design of marine energy converters for autonomous underwater vehicle docking and recharging. Two partner institutions, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, will play supporting roles. 

“No one has been able to design a system to reliably dock an autonomous underwater vehicle with a marine energy converter in energetic ocean conditions,” said Geoff Hollinger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the energy converter project. “We would be the first to do that. It would open up a huge new market for inspection, monitoring, and repairs in marine energy systems without relying on expensive ship support.” 

Testing will be conducted in the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Lab at Oregon State. 

In a second project, researchers will test models for integrating marine energy into microgrids. Oregon State will support the work, which will be led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Microgrids are local energy grids that can be connected to the main energy grid or operated independently. 

“Over the past few years, there’s been agreement on what are good models for wind generation and other renewable energy sources, but models for marine hydrokinetic converters need further validation and benchmarking,” said Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the microgrid project. “I’m most excited about bringing together the marine microgrid environment and the expertise of on-shore power engineers to leverage their historical knowledge of how to run power systems efficiently and safely, while advancing new forms of clean energy that the ocean provides.”

For the third project involving the College of Engineering, researchers will pursue the development of modeling methods that facilitate the design of wave energy converters. The venture will be led by the University of Washington and supported by Oregon State and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Members of the Energy Systems Group inspect microgrid electrical equipment in at the Wallace Energy Systems & Renewables facility at Oregon State, February 2019. From left: College of Engineering graduate Marissa Kwon; Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez; Yue Cao, assistant professor of electrical & computer engineering; Ted Brekken; and doctoral student Ali Haider.

Wave energy converters transform the kinetic and potential energy of ocean waves into mechanical or electrical energy.

“Our objective is to develop models for wave energy converters that bring electrical, hydrodynamic, and mechanical domains under one framework and that lead to improved simulation speed, flexibility, and design,” said Ted Brekken, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State and one of the researchers representing the team focused on the model’s electrical components.

Bryson Robertson, associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering at Oregon State and principal investigator for the wave energy modeling project, offered a broader context about the potential impact of all three endeavors: “The work will help to fill fundamental gaps in our knowledge of marine energy sources and to overcome barriers to the development of emerging technologies,” he said. “Ultimately we hope it leads to reduced costs and improved performance of renewable marine energy.” The projects will also offer cross-disciplinary research experiences for College of Engineering students. 

— By Steve Frandzel

Amy Wyman, a second-year doctoral student in civil engineering, has been awarded a prestigious graduate fellowship from the Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program. The $35,500 award from the U.S. Department of Transportation provides funding for “the nation’s brightest minds” to pursue master’s or doctoral degrees in transportation-related disciplines.

Wyman, who grew up in Portland, earned her Honors Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Oregon State University in 2017. After graduating, she spent two years in Phoenix working as a traffic engineer for consulting firm Burgess & Niple.

She returned to Oregon State in 2019 with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor herself. Her current research focuses on human factors in transportation, with an emphasis on improving safety for pedestrians and bicycles on shared roadways.

“I love that civil engineering is dedicated to public service, and that I share that desire to be a public servant with many of my classmates,” Wyman said. “Of course, I like the technical aspects of my discipline, but it’s the people who have made my experiences in industry and academia truly special.”

Wyman says she has had several fantastic mentors along the way who have inspired and guided her. One of those mentors is her graduate advisor, David Hurwitz, professor of civil and construction engineering and Eric H.I. and Janice Hoffman Faculty Scholar. Wyman was fortunate to meet him when she was still an undergraduate; he also served as her Honors College thesis advisor.

“Dr. Hurwitz was the first, and only, person to suggest I might consider a career as a professor,” Wyman said. “At the time, it hadn’t even occurred to me. A light clicked on, and I realized, ‘Oh yeah, Dr. Hurwitz has a job!’”

Wyman also credits the Women and Minorities in Engineering program at Oregon State, DKS Associates in Portland (where she did her first internship), and her project manager in Phoenix among those who have helped guide her. She says she hopes to “pay it forward” someday, by doing for future students what her mentors have done for her.

“I really love being part of the School of Civil and Construction Engineering, and I genuinely think it’s a special community,” she said. “I’ll never forget how Cindy Olson, who works in the front office, was so welcoming when I first walked in as an uncertain undergraduate hoping to change my major to civil engineering. She knew my name after the first visit. I remember thinking, ‘This is a good place.’”

Photo of Robin GargJust one of 23 students selected from across the world, Robin Garg, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State University, was recently selected to receive a prestigious 2020-21 Predoctoral Achievement Award from the IEEE Solid-State Circuits Society. This award is based on academic record, promise, and quality of publications.

Garg’s work in the High-Speed Integrated Circuits Lab at Oregon State focuses on building advanced integrated circuits for millimeter-wave wireless communication links. His research on scalable and reconfigurable multiple-input multiple-output arrays speeds up wireless communications by enabling multiple streams of data between users. As more 5G networks are deployed and devices that take advantage of this technology become ubiquitous, this research provides solutions to handle the resulting massive surge in demand for data.

Garg received his B.Tech. degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and then worked in industry before returning to school to work on cutting-edge research. “I am passionate about solving the challenging problems that make an impact,” Garg explained. “Recently, we designed a new millimeter-wave full-duplex IC that will allow more users to access 5G networks, as well as reduce the cost of deploying the technology.”

Garg’s advisor, Arun Natarajan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, finds Garg’s work impressive. “Robin has developed innovative techniques that make it easier to increase wireless link data rates that coexist with other radios operating at the same frequency while lowering power consumption,” Natarajan said.

The Solid-State Circuits Society is not the only one noticing Garg’s work. In 2020, he was recognized with the Outstanding Student Designer Award from Analog Devices. He also brought home the student paper award (2nd place) at the IEEE Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits Symposium in 2020. “It is encouraging to see the wider community recognize Robin’s research, and I look forward to his future contributions in this area,” Natarajan said.