Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) boasts some pretty impressive statistics.
Between 2010 and 2021 nearly 900 individual patents were issued for research and development carried out onsite.
Each year more than 3,000 scientists from around the world visit and work at the laboratory’s various facilities, and nearly 60 nationalities are represented in the staff of approximately 5,700, most of whom have PhDs or post-doctoral degrees.
Established in 1943, ORNL has an annual operating budget approaching 2.5 billion USD, and is the US Department of Energy’s single largest science and energy laboratory.
Located in rural east-central Tennessee about 20 miles (32 km) west of Knoxville, ORNL includes more than 250 buildings and tons of high-tech equipment spread across five distinct campuses, all of which are collectively valued at over 7 billion USD.
It’s a place where world-renowned scientists and researchers study everything from isotopes and fusion, to neutrons, supercomputing, and drumroll please…nuclear weapons and other matters of “national security.”
Since 2000, the sprawling 58 square mile (150 square km) campus has been managed by the University of Tennessee and Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, or Battelle as it’s more commonly known.
Though Battelle isn’t exactly a household name, it’s rumored to be the world’s largest private, non-profit applied science and technology firm.
Over the years Battelle scientists and engineers have invented an impressive array of products that most of us are familiar with, including CDs, copy machines, barcodes, cruise controls, and those adorable little dimples on golf balls.
These days however, at least at ORNL, Battelle’s researchers are engaged in far loftier pursuits.
That said, despite ORNL’s storied history, state-of-the-art facilities, abundant funding and unrivaled brain power, one can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have come up with a better motto than – “Solving Big Problems.”
Prior to ORNL’s establishment by the Army Corps of Engineers, nearly all government funded nuclear research was conducted at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory.
Nuclear research wasn’t anything new even by the time the Manhattan Project was founded in 1939, but early work had been theoretical, whereas the Manhattan Project’s scientists were tasked with building usable atomic weapons.
Among the top-secret project’s first recruits, Enrico Fermi set out to make groundbreaking improvements to the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reactor that he’d helped produce years earlier in a makeshift laboratory under the University of Chicago’s fieldhouse.
To kickstart the program and address the tricky issue of producing suitable uranium, President Roosevelt formed the Section on Uranium – or S-1 – under the auspices of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which had been established to fund projects of national importance.
When the United States officially entered the Second World War after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in early December of 1941, S-1’s missions became even more critical.
However, producing sufficient quantities of fissionable material that would be capable of generating a suitable nuclear chain reaction was no easy task.
In nature uranium-235 is exceedingly rare, but using more plentiful run-of-the-mill uranium just wasn’t an option.
Known as enrichment, the process of concentrating fissionable material became priority number one.
By the end of 1941 two materials were under consideration – uranium-235 and plutonium-239 – and the following summer the job of building plants that could produce both fell to the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Due to the project’s sensitive, secretive and potentially lethal nature, proposed sites needed to be close to existing and relatively well-trained workforces, out of range of long-range bombers, and away from the prying eyes of spies, journalists and nosy locals.
Additional Manhattan Project sites were also established in New Mexico and Washington state, but eastern Tennessee’s Clinch River Valley fit the bill on all counts, and it was much closer to the nation’s capital and the headquarters of a number of big defense contractors.
Thanks to the Tennessee Valley Authority the area already had ample electrical power, and the Clinch River would be able to provide much needed water for cooling.
Originally designated “Site X,” the land on which ORNL would be built would initially include three separate production facilities, as well as a fully functioning town that provided nearly everything the workers and their families needed.
Though it was originally called Clinton Laboratories (after neither Bill nor Hillary), shortly after the facility was completed it was renamed Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Spread across more than 1.6 million square feet (148,000 square meters), the K-25 uranium enrichment plant would become the world’s largest building.
In addition, the site later became the home of the X-10 Graphite Reactor, which created weapons-grade plutonium from enriched uranium.
A large portion of the uranium-235 used in the Little Boy atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was harvested at ORNL.
When World War II ended the market for weapons-grade nuclear material dried up temporarily, and as a result many of ORNL’s 1,000+ employees were assigned to other projects
But though the Cold War officially began in 1947, during the late ‘40s and early ‘50s the lab’s future was far from certain.
Much of the research shifted to nuclear propulsion and power generation, the latter of which would require thousands of highly-trained engineers and technicians to staff the power plants that would be built in the following years.
To this end, the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology was established.
In just a few years the program graduated nearly 1,000 “students,” many of whom went on to work at nuclear facilities like Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania, and Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts.
Another major project in the ‘50s was the development of pressurized water reactors like the one used on the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus.
Small, powerful and relatively safe and reliable, they allowed the United State’s nuclear submarines to travel around the globe multiple times between refuelings, giving them a number of huge advantages over their diesel-electric counterparts.
In addition, the Army funded the development of portable nuclear reactors for power generation at remote bases.
Manufactured by American Locomotive Company, these units saw service in Antarctica, Greenland and the Panama Canal Zone, where local power grids were nonexistent.
At that time the possibilities of exploiting atomic power seemed limitless, and in the early ‘50s scientists at ORNL even designed a nucler bomber for the US Air Force.
The revolutionary machine never got past the prototype phase, but by then the focus had shifted yet again, this time to nuclear-powered desalination plants that had far-reaching civil and military applications.
President John F. Kennedy was such a big proponent of the Water for Peace Program that he pitched the idea to a UN conference in 1964, ostensibly as a means of turning deserts into oases and lifting third world countries out of crushing poverty.
However, by the mid-’60s public confidence in nuclear power had waned, and in addition to huge development and construction costs, the project floundered and was ultimately canceled.
By the late ‘60s cuts to the Atomic Energy Commission’s budget resulted in ORNL’s staff being reduced by nearly 20%, though the number of full-time employees still exceeded 3,500.
During the ‘70s a main area of focus was the alluring but albeit unrealized potential of nuclear fusion, and in 1979 after the incident at Three Mile Island, ORNL staff were called in to analyze the reactor’s damaged core and determine how and why the nearly catastrophic event had spiraled out of control so quickly.
Based on their findings nearly 100 new safety procedures were proposed, but though nuclear research had always been front and center at ORNL, it was never the only game in town.
In 1972 ORNL biologists successfully implanted embryos that’d been cryogenically frozen and thawed into a surrogate mother mouse, after which the pups were born normally.
But rodent husbandry aside, the 1980s brought more changes to ORNL, including a doubling of the budget and another official refocus toward advanced materials research.
To hasten development that may have otherwise taken years, scientists created a revolutionary climate simulation chamber that compressed decades of wear, tear and weathering into just days, weeks or months.
Then as now, ORNL scientists commonly worked alongside civilians employed by private manufacturing and defense companies, and in many cases their services were free, but only if the firms agreed to publish their results instead of keeping them for themselves.
However the ‘80s weren’t exclusively characterized by revolutionary breakthroughs, feel-good public-private partnerships and spastic physicists giving one another awkward high-5s in antiseptic labs.
In fact a number of serious environmental issues came to light as well, one of the most prominent of which was the discovery that radioactive waste had escaped from leaky pipes and contaminated the area’s otherwise pristine groundwater.
Clean-up efforts took years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it was also determined that a number of older reactors had become glaring safety hazards that needed to be shut down while more permanent solutions were considered.
For all the wrong reasons, ORNL found itself in the spotlight in the early ‘90s when technician Charles Varnadore filed a number of complaints over what he considered egregious safety, environmental and retaliatory issues.
Varnadore’s story went something like this –
In 1990, he returned to work after undergoing surgery for colon cancer.
He subsequently discovered that his temporary replacement had handled a number of dangerous lab samples unsafely, and in addition Varnadore’s new assignment involved handling radioactive materials with mechanical arms.
This wouldn’t have been such a big deal had he not had poor depth perception as a result of a childhood condition that left him blind in his left eye.
Varnadore felt his impaired eyesight made him unsuitable for the job at hand, and to set things right he brought both matters to the attention of his superiors and asked to be reassigned.
He ultimately got both a new job and a new office, but on the downside, the latter had been contaminated with radioactive waste.
Varnadore later claimed that he was being paid back for reporting the aforementioned safety issues.
An ORNL industrial hygienist found that the office did in fact contain dangerous material, that it had to be removed, and that in the meantime Varnadore would need yet another office.
His superiors complied with the order, but this time they moved poor Varnadore to an office contaminated with mercury, after which he’d had enough and filed suit.
But though a federal judge ultimately decided in his favor, the ruling was overturned by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, largely on the grounds that Varnadore hadn’t taken action in a timely enough manner.
Reich stated that though some of Varnadore’s claims had been substantiated and that he had in fact been retaliated against as a whistleblower, the deplorable and possibly deadly actions of his superiors couldn’t be classified as “pervasive.”
All told Varnadore’s “day in court” didn’t end the way he’d hoped it would, but prime contractor Martin Marietta was cited for various safety violations, and his actions ultimately led to beefed-up protections for future whistleblowers.
Though nuclear research hasn’t fallen by the wayside, over the years ORNL’s reach has become significantly broader and more diversified.
From physics and chemistry to nuclear medicine and population dynamics, there aren’t many scientific fields in which ORNL’s researchers and scientists aren’t involved.
Between 1990 and 2003 the Human Genome Project became a major area of focus.
Project goals included identifying and sequencing the human genome in its entirety, creating databases to manage the vast stores of information collected, and addressing the various social, ethical and legal issues that arose in the wake of the groundbreaking and controversial program.
In recent decades, the study of biological and environmental systems has become another major area of endeavor.
In addition to biology, researchers in various fields including engineering, computing and the physical sciences work together and share data under ORNL’s Biological and Environmental Systems Science Directorate, the aim of which is to promote sustainability while advancing America’s competitiveness, especially as it relates to the emerging field of bioeconomy.
But though it’s anybody’s guess what the real numbers are, it’s likely that of all the dollars spent by ORNL, the lion’s share goes toward defense and national security issues that put the country’s citizens, government, economy and infrastructure at risk.
In these areas most research and development focuses on data collection, analysis, cybersecurity, high-performance computing, and ironically, nuclear non-proliferation.
ORNL staff have helped develop internationally recognized standards and programs designed to monitor and dismantle nuclear arsenals, track and apprehend stolen or illegally sold nuclear materials, and regulate the legitimate trade of nuclear materials between the world’s biggest military and economic powers.
Though its website is unabashedly vague in these areas, it does say that ORNL provides “resources” to the US Department of Homeland Security and other national defense and intelligence agencies, some of which probably don’t even exist…at least officially – supposedly.
In conjunction with these and other programs, the Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate and Leadership Computing Facility house and manage Summit, America’s fastest and most powerful supercomputer.
Developed by IBM, Summit is capable of carrying out 200,000 million million (200 petaFLOPS) individual operations per second, making it the second fastest supercomputer in the world behind Fugaku, which is located at the Riken Center for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan.
Waste Leaks and 3D-Printed Reactors
In mid-September of 2014 it was discovered that a collection pool near one of ORNL’s oldest reactors was leaking radioactive waste at the rate of 100 drops per minute.
Not surprisingly, ORNL and the Department of Energy’s official stance was that though moderately worrying, the leaking material was only “moderately radioactive,” and since it was being collected in a protective basin it posed no imminent risk to worker’s health.
Nonetheless, they did admit that it shouldn’t be leaking in the first place and that they were taking the matter seriously.
The pool from which the material was dripping held approximately 125,000 gallons of water, though at the time of the incident the reactor had been shut down for more than 25 years.
Subsequent investigations uncovered internal correspondence which showed that a similar leak had been discovered all the way back in 2004, though it wasn’t clear if it was at the same reactor or another one altogether.
Though the reactor in question is scheduled to be decommissioned and dismantled in accordance with federal regulations, the mammoth undertaking probably won’t begin until some time well after 2030.
These days – not ones to let the craze pass them by – researchers at ORNL are working on a
3D-printed nuclear reactor core, that if all goes according to plan may be up and running long before the aforementioned leaky reactors are dealt with.