Search Magazine 
Article Index Next Article Previous Article Feedback to Editor ORNL Review Home Page

Chapter 5: Balancing Act

In 1961, Director Alvin Weinberg predicted that historians would view atom-smashing accelerators, fission reactors, and fusion energy machines as prime symbols of modern history, just as the Egyptian pyramids and Roman Colosseum have come to symbolize those ancient cultures. The same year Weinberg made that prediction, however, Laboratory activities began to shift slowly from a reliance on the traditional sciences and engineering hardware to sciences related to social engineering and environmental restoration.

In the 1960s, when congressional committees called on the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to expand and diversify national laboratory programs to create more "balanced laboratories," the call struck a responsive chord in Oak Ridge. Program disruptions that followed the ORNL terminations of the Materials Testing Reactor in 1947, the Aircraft Reactor Experiment in 1957, and the Homogeneous Reactor Test in 1961 taught Laboratory management the dangers of relying on a few large hardware programs. In addition, nationwide scientific involvement in the space race intensified competition for federal research dollars.

Gerald Goldstein tests the ability of the GeMSAEC analyzer to detect and measure trace pollutants in air and water - one symbol of the Laboratory's 
            scientific diversity.
Gerald Goldstein tests the ability of the GeMSAEC analyzer to detect and measure trace pollutants in air and water—one symbol of the Laboratory's scientific diversity.

Responding to the "balanced laboratory" challenge, Director Weinberg organized an advanced technologies seminar to consider the Laboratory's future. "What we should try to do is to identify long-range, valid missions which in scope and importance are suitable for prosecution by ORNL," he said. "Most missions of this sort will probably not fall in the field of nuclear energy. This need not bother us since, in the very long run, ORNL very possibly will not be in nuclear energy exclusively." 

As a member of science panels advising presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, Weinberg aggressively sought to use Laboratory expertise to help solve national and international environmental and social problems. Under Weinberg's leadership, and the leadership of Alexander Hollaender in biology, the Laboratory broadened its programs during the 1960s. Although basic nuclear science continued as a mainstay, the Laboratory increasingly focused on applications and safety of nuclear energy: how commercial nuclear power could help curb air pollution and chemical contamination resulting from burning fossil fuels and produce fresh water from the seas for agricultural and industrial applications. (See related article, Neutrons and JFK.)

The Laboratory had been a nuclear science center from its inception; in 1961, it took the first steps toward becoming a national laboratory in a broader sense. Before 1961, all Laboratory funding came from the AEC. A decade later, about 14% of its $100 million annual budget came from agencies outside the AEC, mostly for programs connected with civil defense, desalination, space travel, and cancer research. 


An immediate local result of Weinberg's service was the development of programs to manage the scientific "information revolution." A historian in 1961 pointed out that the first science journal was published in 1665; the number climbed to 100 in 1800, 10,000 in 1900, and 40,000 by 1961. Science was being buried under a blizzard of new publications. This information explosion, along with increasing specialization and a threatened shortage of scientists, the historian predicted, could cause the collapse of science by 1970. Placed in charge of a presidential task force investigating this ominous trend, Weinberg echoed the historian's sentiments when he said scientists were "being snowed under by a mound of undigested reports, papers, meetings, and books."

To help solve the crisis, Weinberg proposed the creation of information centers. Rather than traditional libraries with stacks of books and shelves of journals available to researchers, these centers would consist of scientists who would read virtually everything published in their specialty, review the data, and provide their colleagues with abstracts, critical reviews, and bibliographic tools. In addition, these scientific "middle people" would contribute to science directly by uncovering new intellectual ties and applications during their in-depth reviews of the literature in their fields. 

The recommendation of the Weinberg panel, outlined in the Science, Government, and Information report (dubbed the Weinberg report), received broad acceptance. Nationally, more than 300 science information centers were formed, including a dozen at the Laboratory. Among the early Laboratory information centers was the nuclear data group, begun at the Laboratory in the mid-1940s by Kay Way as a continuation of her nuclear data work at the University of Chicago. In 1949 Way moved the nuclear data project to Washington, D.C., under sponsorship of the National Bureau of Standards and later the National Academy of Sciences. In 1964 Weinberg brought Way and her team of seven physicists back to the Laboratory, where they continued the systematic collection and evaluation of nuclear data, publishing it in tabulated form for use by researchers. 

Other Laboratory information centers specialized in the fields of accelerators, atomic-collision cross sections, charged particles, engineering, isotopes, nuclear safety, materials research, radiation shielding, toxic substances, and the environmental and life sciences. Coordinated by Walter Jordan and Francois Kertesz, these centers disseminated the information they collected largely by publishing review journals such as Nuclear Safety, annotated bibliographies, charts, and digital computerized information. Widely acclaimed, many of these publications and services have continued to be useful sources of information for researchers. 


Chemist Kurt Kraus directed the Laboratory's water research program during the 1960s.
Chemist Kurt Kraus directed the Laboratory's water research program during the 1960s.

Although less successful in the long run than the information centers, research into removing salt from seawater to produce fresh water for drinking and agriculture attracted the most public and political attention of all the Laboratory endeavors to achieve "balance." 

As a result of its research into fluid-fuel reactors and the chemical processing of nuclear fuels, the Laboratory in 1961 employed some of the world's foremost solution chemists. Some of these chemists had become intrigued by the chemistry involved in desalinating seawater. They voiced support for desalination as a new Laboratory mission in Weinberg's advanced technology seminars, and a committee headed by Richard Lyon explored its potential with the Office of Saline Water, a research arm of the Department of the Interior. 

In Washington, D.C., Weinberg discussed desalination with other presidential science advisers. He also met with Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall. Managers at the Department of the Interior's Office of Saline Water were not thrilled about funding desalting research at the Laboratory, but Udall and Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the AEC, orchestrated a "shotgun marriage" between the two federal agencies. 

ORNL's desalination pilot plant used highly efficient heat transfer tubes to desalt large amounts of seawater.
ORNL's desalination pilot plant used highly efficient heat transfer tubes to desalt large amounts of seawater.

Funded initially at $600,000 a year by the Office of Saline Water and the AEC, a team of Laboratory chemists and engineers led by Kurt Kraus investigated the physical chemistry of seawater, focusing on hyperfiltration (reverse osmosis) to remove salts and contaminants from water. Development of dynamic membranes for rapid production of fresh water from seawater earned the team wide recognition. 

A second phase of the desalting work originated with Philip Hammond, who contended that large nuclear reactors could produce power and heat cheaply enough to desalt seawater, providing electricity for industry and fresh water for agriculture.

Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson judged desalination to be in the national interest. Johnson, in fact, sought to make it an instrument of foreign policy, hoping to build nuclear desalination centers in arid regions such as the Middle East to reduce international competition for natural resources. Echoing the president, Weinberg said, "I can think of few major technical achievements, including manned exploration of space, that would have as much beneficial political impact as would making the deserts bloom with nuclear energy."

Congressman Gerald Ford and Alvin Weinberg examine a sketchof a coastal
Congressman Gerald Ford and Alvin Weinberg examine a sketchof a coastal "nuplex."

At the 1964 United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev viewed the Laboratory's proposed nuclear agro-industrial complexes favorably. Dubbed "nuplexes" by the media, these blueprints called for huge nuclear reactors to produce fresh water from the ocean to irrigate crops and generate electric power. With international support, Laboratory staff in 1964 began to travel to Israel, India, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, Mexico, and the Soviet Union to assist with plans for desalination plants. 

In private, however, Weinberg warned AEC Chairman Seaborg that desalination publicity had outrun the program's technical capabilities and that the Laboratory needed increased research funding "so that the technical basis for the politicians' speeches always remains as firm as possible."

By 1965, when President Johnson announced his "Water for Peace" program, 100 ORNL researchers were studying desalination. One important development was a set of vertical evaporator tubes four times more efficient at producing fresh water from seawater than earlier models. In addition, the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded research into disease- and drought-resistant seedlings to nurture the Green Revolution, became interested in nuplexes as potential food factories in poverty-stricken nations. Former President Eisenhower and former AEC Chairman Strauss endorsed a desalination plant in the Middle East sponsored by private funds funneled through the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Artist's sketch of a proposed island
Artist's sketch of a proposed island "nuplex" using nuclear energy to generate electricity and desalt seawater for irrigating crops.

The desalination bubble burst as quickly as it had formed. By 1968, the costs of nuclear plants had escalated so rapidly that desalination plants no longer seemed economically feasible. As nuclear power costs skyrocketed and the country's social and environmental concerns moved to the forefront, the media and political leaders lost interest in nuplexes. None were ever built, and funds for desalination research dried up as new grain varieties that could be grown with little water staved off famine. 

"Solving today's social and economic problems with tomorrow's technology is risky," Weinberg lamented near the close of this Laboratory effort to become more "balanced." Yet, the information obtained from desalination research later proved valuable for Laboratory technologies developed to treat contaminated water and sewage. Furthermore, a desalination pilot plant planned for a power station near Los Angeles draws extensively on ORNL evaporator tube technology. 


Alexander Hollaender's Biology Division prospered enormously during Laboratory efforts to "balance" its research programs. Staffed by experts who studied the genetic and physical effects of radiation on living organisms, the division also hoped to shed light on radiation's impact on the environment. 

Alexander Hollaender managed the Laboratory's Biology Division from 1946 to 1966.
Alexander Hollaender managed the Laboratory's Biology Division from 1946 to 1966.

When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962, it stimulated intense public concern about the role chemical agents might play in biological and environmental degradation. This widespread worry prompted increased research funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose managers soon received visits from Hollaender, Weinberg, and other Laboratory staff. The discussions—and subsequent funding—bore fruit during the 1960s in the form of increased biological understanding and improved tools for science and medicine. 

With support from the National Cancer Institute, the Biology Division opened a Biophysical Separations Laboratory, taking advantage of centrifuge designs by Paul Vanstrum and fellow researchers at the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The team there had devised improved centrifuges to produce enriched uranium for nuclear reactor fuel, and in 1961 a biology team headed by Norman Anderson, with advice from Jonas Salk of polio vaccine fame, adapted centrifuge technology to separating viruses from human leukemic plasma, hoping to identify a cure for leukemia. This striking use of nuclear separations technology to advance science and medical research led in several directions. 

A hollow cylinder subdivided into sectors, which creates a zonal centrifuge whirling at high speeds, can separate substances at the molecular level into their constituents according to size and density. Anderson and his team experimented with centrifuges whirling up to 141,000 revolutions per minute and learned the machines could separate impurities from the viruses causing polio and Hong Kong flu. By cleansing vaccines of foreign proteins, the zonal centrifuge could produce a vaccine pure enough to minimize the fever reactions that often accompanied immunizations. By the late 1960s, commercial zonal centrifuges based on the ORNL invention produced vaccine for millions of people and purified rabies vaccines for their pets.

Peter Mazur pioneered ways to freeze and store mouse embryos for implantation 
into other mice.
Peter Mazur pioneered ways to freeze and store mouse embryos for implantation into other mice.

Peter Mazur and Stanley Leibo, both of the Biology Division, pioneered the freezing and transplanting of embryos, successfully implanting the thawed embryos of black mice in white female mice in 1972. With other cryobiologists, they developed methods to preserve embryos from superior cattle and implant them into the uteruses of inferior animals, helping to spur a revolution in animal husbandry that increased the quality and abundance of meat. 

In a project jointly sponsored by the AEC and NIH, the Molecular Anatomy (MAN) Program managed by Norman Anderson sought to identify the metabolic profiles and chemical characteristics of all cell constituents. Charles Scott and associates in the MAN Program devised portable centrifugal analyzers commonly used later in medical clinics across the nation. Spinning at high speeds, these analyzers could assay components of blood, urine, and other body fluids in minutes, recording the data on computers for medical diagnosis.

The best known of these machines was the Laboratory's GeMSAEC, so named because its development was funded jointly by the NIH's General Medical Sciences Division and the AEC. Using a rotor that spun 15 transparent tubes past a light beam, GeMSAEC displayed the results on an oscilloscope and fed the data into a computer, completing 15 medical analyses in the time it previously took to perform one analysis.

Norman Anderson and Warren Harris observe the GeMSAEC fast analyzer, a 1968 diagnostic instrument later commercialized.
Norman Anderson and Warren Harris observe the GeMSAEC fast analyzer, a 1968 diagnostic instrument later commercialized.

Another eye-catching development in the Biology Division emanated from the Laboratory's search for powerful microscopes able to view and photograph objects the size of a few atoms. 

After the Biology Division built an experimental microscope with high resolution in 1967, Oscar Miller and Barbara Beatty placed frog eggs under it and photographed genes in the act of making RNA. "I never expected to see the thread of life, the mysterious stuff that poets conjured long ago to explain the passage of the heartbeat from generation to generation across the eons," mused John Lear of Saturday Review of Literature, who came from New York to peer into the microscope. "Yet today the thread lies clearly visible before me, under the lens of an electron microscope, here in the Tennessee hills." 

In addition to funding from the NIH for centrifuge and microscope research, the Biology Division received support in 1965 from the National Cancer Institute for a Co-Carcinogenesis Research Laboratory to investigate the complex biochemical events leading to cancer growth. This work took advantage of the nearly quarter-million mice on hand in the Biology Division. Biologists Richard and Jane Setlow discovered that thymine dimers in experimental animals blocked repair of cellular damage caused by ultraviolet radiation. Arthur Upton and his associates used the mice to study the physical effects of radiation and chemical agents on the environment and on human health. The experiments largely concerned airborne carcinogenesis, or the induction of lung cancer by exposure to pesticides, sulfur dioxide, city smog, or cigarette smoke, both singly and together. Mice exposed to these irritants in an inhalation chamber were then placed in a clean environment while scientists observed the formation of tumors. Upton later left the Laboratory to become director of the National Cancer Institute. (See related article, Smoking Out The Facts.)

Oscar Miller and Barbara Beatty produce DNA images vital to biological sciences.
Oscar Miller and Barbara Beatty produce DNA images vital to biological sciences.

At the time, the components of cigarette smoke were largely unknown. To overcome this handicap, a Lung Cancer Task Force from the Analytical Chemistry Division became involved in carcino-genesis studies when they devised the "ORNL Smoking Machine, Model Number 1." It smoked six cigarettes at a time, even mimicking human inhalation. "This isn't an easy task by any means," commented Herman Holsopple, who built the machine. "Every component in cigarette smoke must first be identified and then studied for its biological effect on humans, and right now we're just trying to identify some of the components." The same approach later was used to determine the biological effects of synthetic fuels made from coal and shale. 

To assess how environmental hazards threaten human health required big protocols, large epidemiologic studies, and expensive machines supported by the latest advances in statistics—just the requirements that Big Biology at the Laboratory could provide. By the late 1960s, the Biology Division, which employed 450 people, had become the Laboratory's largest division. 

Medical knowledge and clinical machines developed at the Laboratory with NIH funding stimulated the formation of a University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Graduate School of Biomedical Science. Thanks to grants from the Ford Foundation, the Laboratory had entered a cooperative program with the University of Tennessee during the early 1960s. As many as 50 Laboratory scientists worked several days each week as Laboratory researchers and spent the remainder of the week as members of the university science faculty. 

This cooperation laid the groundwork for a challenge presented in 1965 by James Shannon, director of NIH. Shannon planned a graduate school in biomedical science near NIH headquarters at Bethesda, Maryland, and as a condition for expanding NIH programs at the Laboratory, he urged creation of a similar graduate school in Oak Ridge. 

After Weinberg, Clarence Larson, Alexander Hollaender, and James Liverman obtained approval for such a school from the AEC commissioners and Donald Hornig, President Johnson's science advisor, Weinberg asked Andrew Holt, president of the University of Tennessee, if he would be interested in developing the school cooperatively. "Our location in Appalachia and the strong contribution which a major new biomedical program would make to President Johnson's Great Society," Weinberg told Holt, "should enlist the aid of our U.S. senators and congressmen as well as the president." 

President Holt and university trustees approved the school in late 1965. Governor Frank Clement contributed $100,000 of state funds, and Clarence Larson arranged a $100,000 contribution from Union Carbide. In 1967, the UT-ORNL Graduate School of Biomedical Science opened, with Clinton Fuller as its first director. It was staffed chiefly by Biology Division personnel holding joint appointments with the University of Tennessee and the Laboratory. 


At the same time the Graduate School of Biomedical Science was being organized, Weinberg explored formation of a Civil Defense Institute at Oak Ridge. The origins of this concept may be traced to the closing ceremony for the Laboratory's historic Graphite Reactor in November 1963.

Bob Holmberg operates a 30-cigarette smoker used for inhalation testing at the Laboratory.
Bob Holmberg operates a 30-cigarette smoker used for inhalation testing at the Laboratory.

AEC Chairman Seaborg, Eugene Wigner, Richard Doan, and other alumni of the Laboratory's wartime campaign returned to Oak Ridge for a nostalgic ceremony formally deactivating the Graphite Reactor on November 4, 1963, after 20 years of service. The next morning, Wigner learned that he would receive the Nobel Prize for physics, an award adding to his public visibility and prominence. At the time, he was campaigning for improved national civil defense. "According to the preamble to the Constitution, one of the purposes of the Union was to provide for the common defense," said Wigner. "It seems difficult to think of defense without making every effort toward protecting what is most important: the lives of the people." (See related article, In the Nation's Defense.)

Confrontations with the Soviet Union over Berlin and Cuba had spurred major funding for civil defense in the United States. Schoolchildren practiced air-raid drills, and homeowners built fallout shelters in their backyards. Although it seems a national obsession in retrospect, the threat then was clearly defined by U.S. and Soviet nuclear capabilities.

James Bresee (right), who directed the Laboratory's civil defense program, converses with physicist Edward Teller.
James Bresee (right), who directed the Laboratory's civil defense program, converses with physicist Edward Teller.

Wigner returned to the Laboratory in 1964 to organize a small, yet vigorous, civil defense research project to assess national vulnerabilities in the event of a nuclear attack and to explore ways to reduce the impact of an atomic assault on America. After organizing this effort, Wigner returned to Princeton, leaving James Bresee as project director, although Wigner made monthly visits to the Laboratory to provide broad programmatic direction. 

The Laboratory's civil defense research initially focused on underground tunnels to protect urban populations and on related issues such as how to rid the tunnels of body heat; protect them against firestorms and blasts; and provide them with power, air, and other utilities. 

Designing civil defense systems required demographic knowledge, such as the number and probable age distribution of the people to be protected. To uncover this information, the Laboratory hired demographers Everett Lee and William Pendleton and joined Oak Ridge Associated Universities in sponsoring formation of the Southern Regional Demographic group in 1970.

Interior of a fallout shelter used at the Laboratory during the 1960s for civil defense experiments.
Interior of a fallout shelter used at the Laboratory during the 1960s for civil defense experiments.

The research also required understanding the reactions of people under the stresses that would accompany emergency use of underground shelters. To explore this problem, the Laboratory hired its first social scientists. 

The potential effects of nuclear fallout on the natural environment became a major concern of Stan Auerbach and his fellow radioecology scientists. Auerbach had attended early civil defense conferences with Wigner because of public concerns about the ecological consequences of a nuclear war. As one result, in 1967 small plots of land at the Laboratory were treated with cesium-137-coated particles to observe the environmental effects of simulated radioactive fallout. This experiment proved to be the last large-scale, fresh field application of radionuclides at the Laboratory, although radiotracer studies continued in previously contaminated sites. 

During the late 1960s, Weinberg explored with the University of Tennessee and state officials the formation of a Civil Defense Institute in Oak Ridge, similar to the Space Science Institute established at Tullahoma, Tennessee. This effort proved unfruitful, but the Laboratory's studies of emergency technology continued under Conrad Chester in the Energy Division, concentrating on evacuation and sheltering from chemical hazards. The group also evaluated the theory that nuclear war could cause major fires, resulting in "nuclear winter" that could plunge much of the world into cold and darkness as the smoke and dust block out sunlight. At the outbreak of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, military authorities thought it worthwhile to reexamine the Laboratory's old civil defense reports on chemical and biological weapons. 


In the early 1960s, Alvin Weinberg expressed his concerns about prospects of a "scientific olympics" with the Soviets that focused on launching manned spacecraft. He thought the space race had little connection with the well-being of people, and he worried about shielding spacecraft crews against solar radiation. Despite Weinberg's reservations, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) supported Laboratory studies of radiation shielding and the biological effects of solar radiation.

During the 1960s, the Laboratory aided development of nuclear power sources for space exploration.
During the 1960s, the Laboratory aided development of nuclear power sources for space exploration.

NASA also partially funded the AEC Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power for long-distance space exploration. In fact, the space race brought $3 million into the Laboratory budget in 1962, and by 1966, the Laboratory had 160 personnel in 10 different divisions participating in the space olympics. 

The Biology, Health Physics, and Neutron Physics divisions received assignments to assay the biological effects of radiation from the Van Allen Belt and solar flares and to devise lightweight shields to protect crews of the Apollo spacecraft. In addition to ground research, the Biology Division sent boxes containing bacteria and radioactive phosphorus aboard Gemini 3 and 11 and also placed blood samples aboard satellites to assess radiobiological effects in space. The Health Physics Division exposed small animals and plastic phantoms resembling humans to fast-burst radiation in the Health Physics Research Reactor, thereby estimating the radiation doses to internal organs that might await the Apollo crews. Fred Maienschein, Charles Clifford, and others in the Neutron Physics Division used data from the Tower Shielding Facility and linear accelerators to design lightweight shielding for the Apollo spacecraft.

J. S. Eldridge and K. J. Northcutt admire a moon rock used at the Laboratory to assay lunar samples for uranium and thorium.
J. S. Eldridge and K. J. Northcutt admire a moon rock used at the Laboratory to assay lunar samples for uranium and thorium.

The AEC Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power program, begun in 1956, aimed to design compact, maintenance-free power generators for use in remote locations at sea, on land, and in space. Under AEC assignment, the Laboratory undertook studies of two types of generators: miniature nuclear reactors and radioisotope generators. 

Arthur Fraas led a team studying a small reactor that used molten potassium to spin a turbine, generating electricity for use in airless, weightless environments. Although not adopted by the AEC for space missions, its boiling potassium technology found applications in other scientific endeavors. 

The Isotopes Division received a major assignment from the AEC to produce massive blocks and pellets of radioactive curium isotopes, which became incandescently hot as they decayed and provided power for thermoelectric generators. Most of these isotopes went into portable power generators built by Martin Marietta Corporation to supply power to weather stations in the Arctic and to Navy navigation buoys and beacons at sea. Because deep space exploration required too many panels for the use of solar energy in the spacecraft, some tiny space probes launched toward the outer planets of the solar system during the 1970s used radioisotopic heat sources capable of producing electricity for as long as 30 years without refueling. These survey craft returned spectacular pictures of the outer planets back to Earth a decade or more later.

The Laboratory helped develop scoops used by Apollo astronauts to retrieve lunar rocks and soil samples.
The Laboratory helped develop scoops used by Apollo astronauts to retrieve lunar rocks and soil samples.

As planning for NASA missions to the moon began, the Laboratory lost personnel to NASA, including P. R. Bell, who, as director of NASA's Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, requested assistance from his friends in Oak Ridge. Neil Armstrong in July 1969 and other astronauts who later landed on the moon carried telescoping scoops for collecting moon rocks; these scoops were designed by Union Carbide's General Engineering Division and fabricated by the Plant and Equipment Division in Oak Ridge. Richard Fox of the Laboratory's Instrumentation and Controls Division—one of the veterans of the 1942 Fermi experiments in Chicago—designed the vacuum-sealed boxes that housed lunar rock samples after their return to Earth; some of those samples came to the Laboratory for intensive study. 

Although less than 4% of the Laboratory's budget came from NASA programs, the personnel involved took pride in helping win the space race. In reflecting on the Laboratory's work for NASA at the end of the 1960s, Weinberg observed that its scientific aspects had been challenging and its management even more so. NASA and other non-AEC projects were subject to micromanagement by the agencies providing the funding, and the Laboratory often missed the budgetary flexibility that AEC-funded programs allowed.


ORNL scientists tag poplar trees with cesium-137.
ORNL scientists tag poplar trees with cesium-137. Left to right: William Cate, Jerry Olson, Hubert Waller, and Stan Auerbach.

Because the AEC had no firm policy on performing work for other agencies, the Laboratory during the 1960s approached external efforts one at a time, gaining approval from AEC headquarters for each venture. By 1969, 14% of the Laboratory's programs consisted of non-nuclear work for agencies other than the AEC. Argonne, Brookhaven, and other laboratories then had less than 1% of their work funded outside the AEC.

In 1967, Congress amended the Atomic Energy Act to further encourage work for other agencies by AEC laboratories. The AEC, along with Congressman Chet Holifield of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, urged the laboratories to initiate studies of environmental pollution, then an increasingly popular and well-funded program under the Federal Water Pollution Control Agency. Weinberg advised the AEC's general manager that Auerbach's ecological studies and Kraus's water research placed the Laboratory in a strategic position to attack water pollution by identifying water pollutants and assessing their effects on aquatic and terrestrial life. Technology developed during the desalination studies, moreover, could be adapted to improve sewage wastewater treatment. Also, Laboratory capabilities in analytical chemistry could be applied to investigations of atmospheric pollution, and biologists could expand their analysis of the effects of chemical agents on living organisms.

Stanley Auerbach operates a hoist handling a cask of cesium-137-tagged sand during a radioecology study.
Stanley Auerbach operates a hoist handling a cask of cesium-137-tagged sand during a radioecology study. Left to right: Roger Dahlman, Paul Dunaway, Jay Story, and an unidentified scientists behind the pushpole.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Agency did not accept the Laboratory's first proposal in 1967 to investigate stream eutrophication. Auerbach and his ecologists then proposed to the AEC that it approve Laboratory study of the impacts of heated water released from power plant cooling facilities into aquatic systems. When the AEC approved this initiative, Auerbach recruited Chuck Coutant, an expert on aquatic thermal effects, to lead this research effort. 

For environmental research at the Laboratory, 1967 was literally and figuratively a watershed year. The AEC approved Daniel Nelson and James Curlin's proposed development of the Walker Branch Watershed research facility, a small stream basin near the main Laboratory complex, as an experimental center for studies of the relationships between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. With instruments located both above and below ground for precise measurement of stream flows, the Walker Branch facility, Auerbach later recalled, marked the beginning of educating Laboratory personnel about the requirements of large-scale environmental research. Also in 1967, the National Science Foundation appointed Auerbach director of the ecosystems component of an International Biological Program for the eastern United States. Funded at about $1 million annually for eight years, this was the first major program supported by the National Science Foundation at an AEC laboratory.

The Laboratory's ecology workboat built in 1959 for a survey of the Clinch River.
The Laboratory's ecology workboat built in 1959 for a survey of the Clinch River. Collecting specimens are (from left) Bill Martin, Neal Griffin, and Daniel Nelson.

As the 1960s waned, national awareness of ecological damage and the threat of pollution increased. As the environmental movement fermented, the Laboratory's potential as a center for environmental research received more and more recognition. Auerbach, William Russell, and other Laboratory ecological and life scientists went on the road to public hearings where they found people concerned about the environmental and health impacts of nuclear energy. Although spearheading investigations of environmental pollution, the Laboratory, along with the AEC and the nuclear industry, found itself on the defensive against charges leveled by environmental activists. Questions about the safety of nuclear reactors became increasingly pertinent to Laboratory research programs. 


By the end of the 1960s, 20% of the Laboratory's reactor budget was devoted to nuclear safety. The Laboratory operated a nuclear safety pilot plant to test fission-product release and fuel transport. It developed a mock-up facility to test fast breeder reactor fuel bundles and a heat-transfer facility to test fuel element behavior in the event of loss-of-coolant accidents. It also devised filters to contain radioactive iodine that might be released during accidents and participated in the design of auxiliary cooling systems for reactors to prevent meltdowns. 

The Laboratory's Heavy-Section Steel Technology Program, under Joel Witt and Graydon Whitman, closely examined reactor pressure vessels to ascertain their performance under stress. Early steel pressure vessels in reactors had ranged from 8 to 25 centimeters (3 to 10 inches) thick, but the larger vessels designed by 1968 were as much as 35 centimeters (14 inches) thick. The Heavy-Section Steel Technology Program's task was to investigate this armorlike steel and devise safety codes and standards for its use in reactor vessels. 

Private nuclear industry shared the costs of heavy-section steel investigations and other nuclear safety programs with the AEC, but these studies were not considered work for other agencies. Instead they were viewed as key Laboratory initiatives, rooted to the institution's historic concerns and mandated by the broad nuclear policy responsibilities granted to the AEC. (See related article, Laboratory's Collective Strength.)


To address possible future roles, the Laboratory obtained National Science Foundation funding for summer seminars in environmental sciences during the late 1960s. These seminars began in 1967 with a multidisciplinary study of a nuclear agro-industrial complex and expanded in 1968 to include investi-gations by Laboratory, Tennessee Valley Authority, and university scientists and engineers of the Middle East, its resources, and the health and education of its people. Milton Edlund and James Lane headed the Middle East studies and visited this distant region to explore potential developments there. 

In the summers of 1969 and 1970, seminars organized by David Rose, who came to the Laboratory from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and by Laboratory staff members John Gibbons, Claire Nader, and James Liverman, addressed environmental issues and the general role of science in the formation of public policy. In retrospect, these far-ranging seminars were pivotal events in the formation of the Laboratory's Environmental Sciences Division and Energy Division, which employ most of the Laboratory's social scientists. Out of these seminars grew a proposal to create national environmental laboratories, or at least one in Oak Ridge. 

Declaring that "ecologists have displaced the physicists and the economists as high priests in this new era of environmental concern," Weinberg formed a National Environmental Concept Committee under David Rose. This committee of ORNL thinkers conceived of the need for "national environmental laboratories" to examine environmental problems holistically. Rose wrote a controversial paper calling for such institutions and suggesting that ORNL might be one of them. The committee delivered a copy of The Case for National Environmental Laboratories to Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who had it printed as a congressional document. Weinberg and Rose then met with senators Baker and Edmund Muskie to discuss it. In early 1970, a House committee added $4 million to the National Science Foundation budget earmarked for studies at the Laboratory of sewage hyperfiltration, air pollution, waste management, and chemical toxicity, and senators Baker and Muskie sponsored a resolution establishing a National Environmental Laboratory at Oak Ridge. Momentarily, it appeared that the Laboratory might jump into the forefront of environmental science. 

Congressman Chet Holifield of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy surprised the Laboratory's staff when he blasted the Baker-Muskie resolution. Rumor had it that he said, "Let Muskie get his own laboratories!" Holifield added a rider to the 1970 AEC authorization that read: 

The Joint Committee sees signs that ambition to acquire new knowledge and expertise in fields outside the present competence and mission of an AEC National Laboratory, in order to attain and provide wisdom which this country needs in connection with non-nuclear environmental and ecological problems, is spurring at least one laboratory to solicit activities unrelated to its atomic energy programs and for which it does not now have special competence or talents. 

Thus chastised, Oak Ridge saw its chances of becoming the National Environmental Laboratory fade. Nevertheless, with enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Laboratory moved into environmental research on a broader scale. In March 1970, shortly before the first Earth Day celebrations, Weinberg expanded Auerbach's Ecology Section into an Ecological Sciences Division. 

Then, in 1972, with the addition of radiological assessment and geosciences groups, the Ecological Sciences Division became the Environmental Sciences Division. The national requirement that environmental impact statements be prepared for new federal projects brought the new division considerable work, and the division formed an Environmental Sciences Information Center to support preparation of impact statements. It also participated in a multidisciplinary study, led by Bill Fulkerson, Wilbur "Dub" Shults, and Bob Van Hook, that examined environmental impacts associated with fossil-fuel power plants. 

In new buildings constructed at the west end of the Laboratory grounds, the expansion of the Environmental Sciences Division at the Laboratory continued into the 1990s. If not in name, the Laboratory became in fact a national environmental assessment laboratory. 


As early as 1967, Weinberg recognized that the costly Vietnam War was constraining the national budget for science. "Because of Vietnam, we shall be lucky to get as much money as we had this year," he told the staff. "We can only hope that Vietnam will be resolved quickly; and that, as peace is restored, we can devote ourselves and our expanding technologies to the creation of a better world." 

The war did not end quickly, and in 1968 budgetary constraints forced retrenchments. Weinberg adamantly denied that the Laboratory's non-nuclear efforts were intended to counter reductions in nuclear science budgets; in fact, he reminded critics that those efforts had begun long before the budgetary shortfalls of the late 1960s. Although Laboratory funding remained constant from 1965 to 1970, inflation eroded the funding's value by as much as 25%. 

Other factors, in addition to the costs of the war, had a role in the declining budget. Because the AEC was determined to proceed with the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor, it slashed funding from the Laboratory's molten-salt thermal breeder program. As part of the social upheaval of the 1960s, strong antiscientific sentiment, marked by confrontations even at professional scientific conventions, also affected congressional support for research. 

Weinberg and Laboratory staff saw several demonstrations against science by disillusioned youth. After witnessing one in Boston in 1969, Weinberg wrote: 

We in Oak Ridge, living as we do in a sheltered and pleasant scientific lotus-land, just don't know what our colleagues in the beleaguered universities are up against. What a shock it is to go to the hub of the intellectual universe for what one expects to be a rather routine scientific meeting, and to run smack into a full-scale confrontation between the scientific establishment and the Angry Young People. I haven't had such an exciting time in years, certainly never at a scientific meeting. 

At Christmas 1969, the Bureau of the Budget ordered across-the-board cuts at the Laboratory, reducing staff from 5300 to less than 5000. Its thermal breeder program was cut by two-thirds, and its proposed new particle accelerator, known as APACHE, was scrapped entirely. Departing friends made the 1969 holiday season in Oak Ridge as gloomy as that of 1947. In the close-knit Oak Ridge community, when friends lost their jobs, they usually had to leave to find work elsewhere. 

"Our vast scientific apparatus is deployed against scientific problems—yet what bedevils us are strongly social problems," Weinberg noted. "Can we somehow deploy our scientific instru-mentalities, or invent new instrumentalities, that can make contributions to resolving these social questions?" 

"We lost our innocence in 1969," Bill Fulkerson, the Laboratory's associate director for Energy and Environmental Technologies recalled years later. Realizing that scientific problems had social contexts as well as technical components, the chastened Laboratory entered the 1970s less innocent but more ready to meet the challenges of this tumultuous decade--one in which the nation would experience two energy crises and federally sponsored environ-mental programs that would forever alter the way the Laboratory conducted its business. 

Beginning of Article

Related Web sites

ORNL Review
ORNL Time Line

Historical Photo Gallery

Other ORNL History Resources

Search Magazine    
Article Index Next Article Previous Article Feedback to Editor ORNL Review Home Page

Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and Community Outreach
[ORNL Home] [CCO Home] [Privacy and Security Disclaimer]