New building complex
News-Sentinel photo by Michael Patrick

A new three-building complex is under construction among ORNL's older facilities, some of which date back to the World War II Manhattan Project. The privately financed venture will add 358,000 square feet of office and research space for advanced computing and other scientific initiatives. The historic Graphite Reactor is in the upper right corner.

from Knoxville News-Sentinel
October 20, 2002
original URL:,1406,KNS_4257_1490909,00.html

ORNL Renaissance

By Frank Munger, News-Sentinel senior writer
October 20, 2002

Even with the haze of construction dust that often covers it these days, Oak Ridge National Laboratory never looked better.

The research lab will turn 60 next year, and thereís more than a birthday to celebrate.

"Quite honestly, this is the most exciting laboratory in the country," said Bill Madia, ORNLís director. "When I look at where science is going and whatís happening at Oak Ridge, there just isnít another lab with a more positive future."

The nationís biggest science project, the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source, is now halfway to completion and ahead of schedule, and Oak Ridge won a series of new projects this year, adding to the momentum. ORNL is anchored in the nationís research mainstream, according to Madia.

He points to leadership positions in neutron science, materials research and high-performance computing. He cites a resurgence in nuclear and biological studies. He brags about the labís pioneering work in nanoscience.

"Thatís like the heart of rock and roll if youíre a scientist," he said of the laboratoryís research agenda. It is impossible to separate the priming of science experiments in Oak Ridge from the wholesale makeover of the laboratoryís physical plant.

A $300 million modernization program is well under way. Itís expected to produce a dozen new buildings over the next five years, adding nearly 700,000 square feet of space for research labs and offices.

There will be new quarters for biology, fusion energy, engineering technology, and computational sciences. There will be a new conference center, a think-tank to explore science issues of the day, and several joint research institutes with university partners.

Because of all the construction, the place is loud and messy at the moment, and parking availability changes with the day. But progress breeds tolerance.

"I look out my window and see a 40,000-square-foot computer room going up before my very eyes. Now thatís striking," said Lee Riedinger, the labís deputy director for science and technology. "Itís really exciting to see so much construction going on."

In some research programs, Oak Ridge would have lost stature and squandered its ability to compete for future funding if top-notch facilities werenít available or being built.

When the government this summer chose ORNL, in collaboration with Cray Corp., to develop the worldís fastest supercomputer, the new facilities were a primary reason. Other labs couldnít match the roomy test bed, when combined with the staff expertise.

The SNS, of course, is the big coming attraction, and itís supposed to bring 2,000 scientists a year to East Tennessee starting in 2006. But the SNS wonít stand alone on Chestnut Ridge. ORNL got the go-ahead earlier this year to construct a $65 million nanoscience research center adjacent to the SNS. Other facilities could come later.

A major refurbishment of the High Flux Isotope Reactor, the labís 37-year-old research reactor, could double its lifetime. More importantly, the reactorís experimental capabilities have been expanded and upgraded so that, once again, it can claim a place among the very best anywhere.

Oak Ridge was the surprise big winner in the "Genomes to Life" research awards announced earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Energy. The laboratory was named to lead or collaborate on three of the five projects, with $21.7 million in funding coming to Tennessee.

Good news has arrived in waves.

Of the top young scientists chosen to receive early career awards from the White House, three of them (out of seven total from national laboratories) came from Oak Ridge.

Three of the yearís top 100 innovations, as recognized by R&D Magazine, were the work of ORNL scientists and engineers. Of course, not everything is cool and good or wrapped and ready for the future.

The biology program, for instance, is supported largely by ambition and visions of how to use the labís unique resource of 60,000 mutated mice. Thereís not much of a sustained funding base from the Energy Department and no guarantee that ORNL will secure the broader niche it seeks in the high-stakes genetics competition.

Also, the laboratory is banking, to some extent, on nuclear energyís return to popularity in the United States. Tom Wilbanks, who chairs the Corporate Fellows Council, an elite group of scientists at ORNL, worries that lab management may have too much faith in nuclear for the near term.

"I think if we bet on that, weíve got a slow 20 years," Wilbanks said. "I think the social obstacles to widespread use of nuclear energy are not going to be overcome for another generation. We ought to be looking at it, but we need to be prudent."

ORNL responded quickly to science and technology needs of homeland security in the post-Sept. 11 world. But so did just about every other U.S. laboratory of note. The complicated research agenda is sure to be a moving target over the next decade as the nation tries to deal with the changing face of terrorism. Oak Ridgeís impact on the program, and vice versa, is still unclear.

And, even with all the success enjoyed by Oak Ridge over the past year or two, the future at a federal laboratory is only as predictable as the last budget passed by Congress. Guarantees come one year at a time.

Peter Bond, former director of Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, applauded the building program at Oak Ridge and impressive research projects such as , like the SNS and high-performance computing. But he also sounded a cautionary note.

"I think theyíve been on a good streak this year," Bond said of his counterparts at ORNL. "The key in all of this stuff, of course, is keeping it up for more than a year. And one thing you learn is that things can go up and things can go down." UT-Battelle, the contractor that replaced Lockheed Martin as manager of the federal lab in April 2000, hopes to sustain success for the longer term. Part of its strategy involves stronger ties to academia, including partnerships with six core universities that were part of UT-Battelleís proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy. Duke University is one of ORNLís partners, and Jim Siedow, the vice provost for research, said sharing resources will benefit both institutions.

"Oak Ridge has tremendous technical capabilities and equipment, and our scientists can really make use of some of those tools," Siedow said. "What we have is personnel, and they are a little understaffed. Those (strengths) really complement each other."

There are plans for research pairings in biological and environmental sciences, areas where Duke excels. The university ties will help ORNL tap into funding at the National Institutes of Health, which sponsors much of the nationís research in genetics and environmental effects.

Duke is creating its own mouse-research program and will be able to share special strains of mutated mice developed at ORNL over the past half-century. University scientists also can use Oak Ridge supercomputers to do simulation experiments in support of complex biological studies.

Besides Duke, ORNLís core universities are Virginia, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Florida State and North Carolina State. Len Peters, the research chief at Virginia Tech, said Oak Ridgeís involvement with universities is like adding 8,000 to 10,000 doctoral te degrees to the lab research staff.

"I think this is opening it up for us all to cooperate with the intellectual human resources that we have," Peters said. "One of the things that universities bring is strength in the social sciences and ethics. So many of todayís important scientific questions revolve around ethical and social issues, and thatís a resource you wouldnít have otherwise."

The University of Tennessee, of course, is now involved directly in management of ORNL, but many of the new relationships with universities are based on UTís half-century experience as a partner with the federal lab. The two are only 20 miles apart.

"Very few universities in this country have the chance to work so closely with a national laboratory, and the opportunities that this relationship presents to us for our students and faculty are just priceless and truly unique and we should be proud of them," UT President John Shumaker said at a ceremony in August.

UTís presence in Oak Ridge will become all the more obvious in the next few years, as joint institutes for biology, computational science and neutron science are constructed.

Reinhold Mann, deputy director for science and technology at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was on the ORNL staff until a year ago, and he has seen the changes from up close and afar.

"Itís pretty obvious thereís an aggressive growth strategy going on," Mann said. "Oak Ridge has the ability to react very quickly to rapidly changing environments, like post-9-11."

The current situation, he said, is an example of outstanding scientific talent being put to use in a developing program with great support. That support system includes politicians in Washington, he said.

"Oak Ridge has a lot going for it," Mann said.

Wilbanks said the scientific staff was ready for a change when the new contractor took over in April 2000. "I think the general view of the staff was that anybody but Lockheed Martin had to be better. There were concerns that the lab was in trouble, slipping in its standards. So, there were a lot of hopes, but I donít think anybody expected in 22 years that we would see so much in the way of new facilities, so many successes in big science program developments, and so much of a change in atmosphere with openness and communication.

"Thatís not to say there are not problems and not to say there are some areas not successful. But, in general, people are impressed and excited and pleased."

Nothing, perhaps, has attracted more praise, from laboratory staff and the community, than UT-Battelleís ability to change the physical face of the laboratory in such a short time.

Jeff Smith, the deputy lab director for operations, said morale picked up immediately when construction began. He said he didnít have to gauge the mood of scientists. They came up and told him how pleased they were. "Iím not ready to claim victory yet because we still have a lot of challenges ahead, but I think some of the skeptics - ĎSure, they talk a good game, but letís wait and seeí - are coming around," Smith said.

Murray Rosenthal, a former associate director who retired in 1994, said he can hardly believe some of the changes taking place.

Rosenthal spent 41 years at ORNL, and he said it became increasingly difficult to maintain a strong laboratory and to recruit young scientists to rundown facilities. Heís thrilled with the turnaround and he shared that enthusiasm with Madia. "I told him itís the first time I felt like I shouldnít have retired," Rosenthal said. "Itís marvelous." Frank Munger may be reached at 865-482-9213 or

Copyright 2002, KnoxNews. All Rights Reserved.
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