Nuclear Plants Cautiously Phase Out Dial-Up Modems

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is asking the operators of America’s 66 nuclear power plants to voluntarily upgrade the on-site monitoring systems that report plant conditions to the government.

That upgrade to the 16-year-old Emergency Response Data System? Replacing telephone dial-up modems with VPN appliances.

“Licensees currently use analog modulator/demodulators (modems) to establish point-to-point data connections,” the NRC wrote in a memo (.pdf) to plant operators late last month. “Although this technology was state of the art when ERDS was first implemented, it is now obsolete, and replacement equipment is no longer available.”

The NRC notes several advantages to doing away with dial-up. For one, in a crisis all the plants could report data to the NRC’s Maryland headquarters simultaneously, without the hassle of busy signals. In addition, “The use of modems inherently introduces cyber security vulnerabilities to the systems to which they are attached.”

The ERDS ties into plant computer systems to give the NRC’s 24-hour Operations Center a “near real-time” view of plant conditions around the country, according to NRC regulations — including reactor core and coolant conditions, and radioactivity release rates.

As of May 1, 2009, operators of 19 plants had expressed interest in getting rid of their modems. One hopes the other 47 will soon follow those early adopters.

Next year, I hear they’re getting cable.


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