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Chapter 7: Energy Technologies

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THE CARTER VISIT 

On May 22, 1978, President Jimmy Carter visited the Laboratory and other Oak Ridge facilities. He was accompanied by Department of Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, Presidential science advisor Frank Press, DOE Research Director John Deutch, and Tennessee Senator James Sasser. His visit attracted many members of the local and national press, including Sam Donaldson of ABC news. 

President Jimmy Carter (center), with U.S. Representative Albert Gore, Jr. (second from right), donned hardhats for a briefing on Laboratory activities.
President Jimmy Carter (center), with U.S. Representative Albert Gore, Jr. (second from right), donned hardhats for a briefing on Laboratory activities.

President Carter arrived at the Laboratory in a limousine about noon and walked to a packed Central Auditorium in Building 4500-North. There he sat at a table with managers and researchers for a roundtable discussion. He spoke briefly, and Director Herman Postma introduced researchers selected because their research was thought to be of interest to the president. 

Laboratory staff members had mixed feelings about the president. Many were excited about his arrival because he was the first U.S. president to visit the Laboratory while in office. Many were proud because this former governor of Georgia was the first president from the Southeast and because he had worked on a Navy submarine as a nuclear engineer under the supervision of Admiral Hyman Rickover. But many staff members who had long supported nuclear power disagreed with Carter's opposition to the development of breeder reactors. His stance was based on his concern that the plutonium produced in such devices might be diverted by terrorists and outlaw nations to make bombs. 

At the roundtable discussion, President Carter told employees, "I think the success that we will strive to achieve in the energy field is heavily on your shoulders." He also spoke of the unsolved problems of safe disposal of nuclear waste and proper storage and use of spent nuclear fuel. 

President Carter then listened to the Laboratory researchers at the roundtable: Bob Honea and Patricia Rice, on use of computers to study potential impacts of the president's proposed National Energy Plan; Henry Inouye, on development of alloys that grow stronger as temperatures increase; Pete Lotts, on design of nuclear fuel elements and cycles to prevent diversion of fissionable materials; Sandy McLaughlin, on effects of air pollution on vegetation; Liane Russell, on genetic effects on mice of synthetic fuel compounds derived from coal; and Lee Berry, on magnetic fusion research, including the Laboratory's work in plasma heating and plans for an international test of six superconducting magnetic coils. 

The president expressed particular interest in Berry's talk and asked him several questions including, "Is there any limiting characteristic of fusion that causes you the most concern?" Berry replied that his only concern was whether the engineered fusion systems of the future could be integrated to produce power. "We can make a reactor," Berry said, searching for an analogy. "But the question is, will it fly? I mean, will it go under water and come up again?" The audience, and presumably the president, laughed. 

After the discussion, the president was escorted to the East Lobby of Building 4500-North, where he was shown several exhibits. He heard about the development of fluidized-bed coal burners (from John Jones); tertiary recovery of oil (from Alicia Compere); use of bioreactors to degrade hazardous substances and produce desired chemicals (from Chuck Scott); and detection of single atoms of target elements using lasers (from Sam Hurst). 

How did the researchers feel about the President after his visit? According to The Oak Ridger, the researchers were impressed by "the keenness of the President's mind, the perceptiveness of his questions, and the sincerity of his interest in what other scientists were saying." Such a rare dialogue between scientists and a U.S. president will remain a highlight of Laboratory history. 

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