Wireless at the Nuclear Cleanup

By Gerry Blackwell

September 09, 2004

Since securely using Wi-Fi in the dismantalling of a contaminated facility had become common place, when the contractor in charge needed better range and capacity it turned to the future: WiMax.

Carefully cleaning and dismantling a contaminated nuclear weapons manufacturing facility and carting it away brick by brick is, to say the least, a sensitive and complex operation. The clean-up project at the infamous 6,000-acre Rocky Flats nuclear complex in Golden, Co., began in 1995 and will run for another few years yet.

That the company contracted to do the work, CH2M HILL, has used Wi-Fi in the past to provision vital voice and data services at the site and is now using pre-standard WiMax gear from Redline Communications is surely testimony to the fact that Wi-Fi and related technologies have come of age. Security and reliability are no longer the problems, perceived or real, that they once were.

CH2M HILL, a contractor specializing in major industrial and public works projects that involve safeguarding the environment, implemented the new network using Redline's 802.16-compliant AN-50 products earlier this year. It replaced a hybrid solution that included some fixed fiber and some 802.11b Wi-Fi. The company needed to increase wireless range and network capacity, and also wanted the non-line of sight (NLOS) capabilities of the Redline technology. Frequency management had also been a headache with the Wi-Fi network. Security, perhaps surprisingly, had not.

Kelly Guthner, CH2M HILL's chief technology officer at Rocky Flats, explains that because much of the data at the site, and about the site, is highly classified, all voice and data communications traveling over "public" media must be encrypted to FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) 140 standard, and the network must be absolutely bullet proof. That was no problem for Redline -- but no problem for Wi-Fi either.

CH2M HILL set up the original network at a time when there was near panic in government and military circles about Wi-Fi's much publicized security vulnerabilities. When the Department of Energy, the owner of the Rocky Flats facility, conducted a data security audit soon after the Wi-Fi network was up and running, auditors assumed they would blast if full of holes.

They were wrong.

"They even knew the physical and logical architecture of the network and they still couldn't get in," Guthner recalls. "They said, 'Show us more.' So we did and they tried again, and they still could not get in. In the end, it received the highest security rating. At the time, these were supposedly very immature wireless and security products, yet we were able to architect the network in a way that satisfied very strict requirements."

The move to the Redline 802.16 gear came in part because the project is evolving to a new phase as it nears completion. Rocky Flats has had a long and decidedly scary history.

The facility began manufacturing nuclear bombs and missiles in 1951. It eventually included 400-plus buildings in a 385-acre industrial zone the size of a small city within the 6,000-acre tract. It operated through the 1960s and 70s, despite growing alarm and protests over suspected contamination. Finally, the FBI raided the facility in 1989 to investigate alleged environmental crimes.

It found an ecological disaster. The quantities of weapons-grade radioactive materials -- uranium, plutonium -- and contaminated waste at the site measured in the metric tonnes or tens of thousands of cubic meters. Another three years went by before the operation was completely shut down, and a crucial three years more, from 1992 to 1995, before the huge clean-up operation began. In that time, the contamination problems increased as the facility deteriorated, Guthner says.

The clean-up project, which currently employs over 4,000, involves disposing of the hazardous materials at safe burial sites, emptying the buildings and safely disposing of the contents, removing all remaining contamination by a variety of methods -- including even scraping concrete surfaces -- and then demolishing the now clean buildings and carting away the rubble. The final stage will be covering the entire site with three feet of clean dirt.

At some point in the clean-up process for each building, protocols require cutting all power and telecommunications services -- turning them "cold and dark" as Guthner puts it. Workers still need voice and data communications services, however, and CH2M HILL still needs to maintain emergency fire and contamination monitoring services.

The solution was to bring fiber on to the site and then go the last quarter mile with Wi-Fi links that were used to carry both voice (VoIP) and data. This worked, though there were problems, and Guthner eventually went looking for a new solution late last year.

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