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From July 12, 2004, News-Sentinel

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ORNL's computing role attracts curious visitors

By Frank Munger
August 4, 2004

George Cotter, lead scientist with the National Security Agency, recently visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory and got a briefing or two. He met with, among others, Jeff Wadsworth, ORNL's director, and Thomas Zacharia, the lab's computing czar.

ORNL, of course, is now the place to be for high-end computing, having won a competition to develop the world's fastest computer and to build the U.S. scientific capabilities. Cotter apparently wanted to take a look.

"It is really a continuing collaboration," Zacharia said.

ORNL is working with Cray on new computer architectures that are supposed to challenge and then surpass Japan's Earth Simulator - currently the most powerful supercomputer on the planet. And Cray also has a long-standing relationship with NSA and the Department of Defense.

While the Oak Ridge lab is charged with developing the best tools for open, scientific use, the NSA is anything but an open organization - using some of the fastest machines anywhere to conduct top-secret intelligence missions.

There are mutual interests, however, in the best technology, Zacharia said.

"The Cray X1 is clearly an interesting architecture for applications other than open, scientific computing," the ORNL official said. "At the core, the technology has other applications."

But don't expect the Oak Ridge lab to use its supercomputers for intelligence purposes, he said.

"The administration can always require a change in missions, but I don't believe the Center for Computational Sciences will be asked to support any intelligence missions because we're not set up that way," Zacharia said.

The Oak Ridge meeting was simply a chance for Cotter and the NSA to better understand where ORNL and its partners are going with high-end computing, he said.

"He wanted to see what our plans were and wanted to get a feel for the people here," Zacharia said. "It seemed like a natural for two institutions with good facilities and talented people to discuss future directions . Frankly, we've had visitors from Italy and Japan and England (looking at the computer plans). So I think he was just doing due diligence."

Wadsworth said of the meeting: "It was a very open discussion about trends in high-end computing."

The ORNL director in a previous interview acknowledged that the lab is doing work for the "three-letter" intelligence agencies.

"We're obviously a little careful about what we say about that kind of work," he said. "We have a significant national security program, a burgeoning one. Where we can help the country, we will. But, in this case, our broad discussion had to do with how you build up scientific computing capabilities."

* * *

Dennis Hill, a spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs Co., disputed rumors that the company has fallen behind schedule for cleaning up the government's Oak Ridge reservation.

Bechtel Jacobs is the U.S. Department of Energy's environmental manager.

Hill said the company's contract calls for three major milestones, with completion dates at the end of fiscal 2005, 2006 and 2008. The last one is the closure of the East Tennessee Technology Park (the former K-25 uranium-enrichment plant).

"BJC expects to complete all three of these projects on or ahead of schedule," he said.

* * *

The management contract is up for bids at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which DOE recently designated as the lead lab for nuclear activities.

The consolidation of nuclear missions at Idaho could suck away some projects at ORNL, including the Oak Ridge lab's proposed $40 million hot-cell upgrades to process plutonium-238 for space uses.

"I think that's an open question as of today," Wadsworth said.

He said ORNL was discussing that and other issues with Bill Magwood, who heads DOE's nuclear energy programs.

"We're going to be working with Idaho, whoever wins (the contract), and coordinating our work with them," Wadsworth said.

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Department of Energy for the News Sentinel. He may be reached at 865-342-6329 or at munger@knews.com. This column is also available in the opinion section of knoxnews.com.

Copyright 2004, KnoxNews, All Rights Reserved.
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