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

Chapter 8: Diversity and Sharing

In the 1970s, the Laboratory moved beyond its war-rooted preoccupation with nuclear power to research fields embracing all energy forms. By the early 1980s, that journey was complete. In the words of Associate Director Alex Zucker, ORNL had become "a multiprogram research and development laboratory having a variety of energy-related missions of national importance."

Jack Ranney surveys hybrid poplar trees under study as a biomass energy crop.
Jack Ranney surveys hybrid poplar trees under study as a biomass energy crop.

Emphasis on the Laboratory's multiprogram character was in part a response to the "Reagan revolution" of the 1980s, when fierce debates arose over the proper balance between the public and private sectors. The Reagan administration, in fact, proposed to abolish DOE and severely curtail the activities of the national laboratories. Energy policies, the administration stridently proclaimed, should be shaped by the private sector. If government had any role at all, it should be narrowly confined to questions of basic research. 

President Reagan appointed James Edwards, a former governor of South Carolina and oral surgeon with little background in energy policy, to preside over DOE's dissolution as the nation's "last" Secretary of Energy. The president planned to transfer its residual functions to the Department of the Interior under James Watt or to the Department of Commerce under Malcolm Baldrige. 

Jack Gibbons pursued science at the Laboratory and the University of Tennessee's Energy , Environment, and Resources Center before becoming director of the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress. He also served as President Clinton's science advisor.
Jack Gibbons pursued science at the Laboratory and the University of Tennessee's Energy , Environment, and Resources Center before becoming director of the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress. He also served as President Clinton's science advisor.

Aiming for major reductions in the public sector, in 1981 the Reagan administration initiated executive reviews of most federal agencies, including DOE laboratories. Kenneth Davis, Deputy Secretary of Energy under Edwards, directed an Energy Research Advisory Board to survey the laboratories' work. Congress conducted similar investigations. 

Investigators distinguished among three kinds of laboratories: single-purpose specialty, exclusively weapons, and broadly diverse multiprogram. Oak Ridge, Argonne, and Brookhaven were on the original list of multiprogram laboratories, but it soon expanded to include more than a dozen DOE laboratories. 

Vocal criticisms of these multiprogram laboratories arose from universities, consulting firms, and industrial laboratories. Because of the laboratories' excursions during the 1970s into diverse energy research agendas, critics saw them as subsidized competition. One industrial executive, for example, charged: "When I find Oak Ridge planting trees to see if they can't grow them a little closer together and faster, which the paper companies could do; testing solar cells that there are 300 companies already set up to test; and so on, I just wonder if we haven't lost our sense of focus altogether." 

Admitting the missions of national laboratories had become diffuse and perhaps "unfocused" during the 1970s, Laboratory leaders asked whether more precise definitions of the roles of all laboratories—national, private, and university—would help clarify the situation and foster a healthier and more robust national research program. Truman Anderson, chief of Laboratory planning and analysis, urged that national laboratories should "assume a broader role in a new partnership with industry and universities." This new partnership was to reshape Laboratory activities throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. 

Program diversity enabled the Laboratory to weather the intense scrutiny of 1981; so, too, did the administration's pronuclear stance, which ameliorated its initially harsh approach to government-sponsored energy programs. Commenting on the effects of Reagan's policies after his first year in office, Laboratory Director Herman Postma declared: "The impacts so far, while unwelcome and frequently painful, have been rather moderate overall, and certainly less severe than at many of our sister laboratories." Indeed, Postma thought the Reagan policies may have had some salutary effects, notably in restoring an equitable balance between basic science and applied technology. 

During the early 1980s the Laboratory staff was reduced by about 700 persons as a consequence of Reagan administration cost-cutting measures. However, the Laboratory's multiprogram character, together with its ties, through Union Carbide, to the Y-12 and K-25 plants, allowed the cuts to be handled largely by transferring personnel and not filling positions when people retired or resigned. 

The first year of the Reagan revolution would prove the most unsettling for the Laboratory. Deep recession in 1982 and growing federal budget deficits soon fostered less hostile views of Laboratory activities within the administration. A national consensus emerged that viewed scientific and technological innovations as the nation's "ace in the hole" for breaking the cycle of budget deficits, high unemployment, and unfavorable trade balances. In 1982, Herman Postma observed that support was building in government for concerted efforts to "encourage high technology development as the best hope for the nation's economic future." 

Along with other DOE laboratories, Oak Ridge endured the loss or retrenchment of some programs and staff reductions during the early 1980s but emerged in a stronger position later in the decade. Some ORNL employees took positions in Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc., with the Data Systems Research and Development Organization or with DOE's Hazardous Waste Remedial Action Program (HAZWRAP).

Robert Steele and B. J. Sutton evaluate materials in a 1980 flywheel under study for mechanical energy storage in automobiles. Flywheels were also explored as energy storage devices for the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Robert Steele and B. J. Sutton evaluate materials in a 1980 flywheel under study for mechanical energy storage in automobiles. Flywheels were also explored as energy storage devices for the Strategic Defense Initiative.

In time, the Reagan administration abandoned efforts to dispense with DOE, as well, in part because of congressional opposition, in part because of the heavy weight of bureaucratic inertia, and in part because DOE laboratories emerged as critical research centers for the Reagan inspired Strategic Defense Initiative. 

Thus, the Reagan administration's strenuous reform efforts did not seriously sap the overall strength of the Laboratory. These efforts, however, did rearrange Laboratory priorities and programs. For example, Reagan policies forced the Laboratory to reduce the size of its fossil-energy program, and the administration proposed budget cuts that would have scaled back its energy conservation program had the funds not been restored by Congress. When the administration terminated the government-sponsored synthetic fuels program in favor of supply-side, market-driven energy initiatives, funding for the Laboratory's coal research dwindled. To maximize the return on its diminished resources, DOE decided to conduct all its coal research in laboratories linked to the Bureau of Mines. The administration also looked unfavorably on energy conservation, but the Laboratory's energy conservation program survived an early round of cuts and rebounded to eventually enjoy renewed vigor.

STAR WARS 

In March 1983, President Reagan espoused an antimissile defense initiative that aimed to break the nuclear stalemate by shifting the battlefield to outer space, where an impenetrable defense umbrella would forever protect the United States from nuclear attack. Declaring that the Strategic Defense Initiative would make nuclear weapons obsolete by rendering an attack futile, the president proclaimed that the proposal held promise for "changing the course of human history." Critics dubbed the initiative "Star Wars"—a flight of fancy charted by an ill-informed president that falsely promised to turn the world's fiercest technological force into its most reliable sentinel of peace. 

In truth, scientific opinion was deeply divided on the long-term prospects of this proposal. Beyond the huge price tag, however, one thing was certain. Devising space satellites capable of destroying nuclear missiles would require major scientific and technological advances. Resources at DOE's national laboratories—both in skilled personnel and sophisticated equipment--would be vital to any chance for success. 

Managed by David Bartine, the Laboratory's Star Wars research agenda, which was set by the Department of Defense, focused on designing reactors to power space satellites and lasers; flywheels for energy storage and pulsed power; and particle accelerators for producing beams to destroy missiles from space. 

Tritium light developed at the Laboratory is installed at an Alaskan airfield 
by an Air Force employee.
Tritium light developed at the Laboratory is installed at an Alaskan airfield by an Air Force employee.

Studies of highly focused beams of hydrogen particles, able to destroy the electronic components of a missile, evolved from the Laboratory's fusion energy experiments in which beams of neutral hydrogen atoms were used to heat plasmas to high temperatures. 

John Moyers headed a team from the Engineering Technology Division and other divisions for design of a nuclear reactor to provide power bursts for the lasers and weapons aboard space vehicles. Their concept centered on a boiling-potassium reactor, perhaps with flywheels for energy storage. Even if never needed for national defense, the reactor might power long-distance space exploration to Mars and beyond. 

Although some Star Wars research was classified, two of the Laboratory's announced achievements included powerful particle beams and mirrors for surveillance satellites. Taking advantage of the negative-ion sources developed as a result of fusion energy research, Laboratory scientists devised the "world's highest simultaneous current density output and pulse length"—that is, a particle beam that remains tightly focused for thousands of miles, like a spotlight rather than a floodlight. In cooperation with scientists from the K-25 and Y-12 plants and from industry, the Laboratory also conducted research on beryllium mirrors and windows that would permit space satellites to sense the heat of missile launches on Earth. These mirrors and windows were devised, fabricated, and polished in Oak Ridge in cooperation with Martin Marietta Aerospace of Denver. From this effort emerged the Laboratory's Optics MODIL (Manufacturing Operations Development and Integration Laboratories), which has entered into several cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) with industrial firms. 

The media seemed more interested in the Laboratory's killer bees research than its Star Wars work. At first glance, star wars and bee wars may seem to have little in common, but the efforts of researchers in both fields to track flying objects at long distances enabled them to find a common ground of scientific investigation. 

ORNL's Bee Spectrum Analyzer can detect Africanized killer bees in European honeybee hives.
ORNL's Bee Spectrum Analyzer can detect Africanized killer bees in European honeybee hives.

Newspaper journalists and television reporters enjoyed reporting Laboratory efforts to detect the migration patterns of the Africanized bees, dubbed killer bees, that moved north from Central America during the 1980s, posing a threat to national honey production. 

Howard Kerr, an experienced amateur beekeeper, became interested in finding ways to detect and track the movements of killer bees. He and his Laboratory colleagues considered tracking them with radioisotopes, spotting them with infrared devices, or identifying their presence in hives by detecting their characteristic buzzing with acoustical devices. This approach would provide scientists with opportunities to disrupt the bees' mating patterns. To Kerr and his colleagues, the threat that killer bees posed to honey production in North America was a serious matter; their research continued as the bees migrated across the Rio Grande River into Texas during the 1990s. 

ENERGY SYSTEMS 

In 1982, the Laboratory spruced itself up for the Knoxville World's Fair, building a visitor's overlook on a nearby hill and opening some facilities to tell crowds attending the fair and nearby attractions about energy and environmental research taking place at Oak Ridge's national multiprogram laboratory.

Tourists at the Laboratory Overlook built to host visitors during the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair.
Tourists at the Laboratory Overlook built to host visitors during the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair.

At the same time, the Laboratory also became an anchor for a proposed technology corridor championed by Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander.

The corridor was built along Pellissipi Parkway, a highway linking west Knoxville to Oak Ridge. The aim of the corridor was to promote regional economic growth, partially through transfer of Oak Ridge's publicity funded technology to private industrial firms. It was hoped that Pellissipi Parkway, in time, would feature tree-lined industrial parks and glass-encased offices built to market the region's scientific and technological advances. In effect, corridor advocates were seeking to create a Silicon Valley in East Tennessee that would draw on the complementary skills of the region's three major institutions—Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. 

As the World's Fair celebration began, the Laboratory was surprised by news that Union Carbide, after nearly 40 years in Oak Ridge (34 years at the Laboratory) would withdraw as the operating contractor. Three days after the World's Fair opened in May 1982, Union Carbide management announced that the company would relinquish its contract for operating the Laboratory and other Nuclear Division facilities in Oak Ridge and Paducah, Kentucky, although it agreed to serve until DOE selected a new contractor. 

The terse announcement read by Roger Hibbs of Union Carbide said the decision not to renew the contract resulted from the company's strategy of "concentrating its resources and management attention on commercial businesses in which it has achieved a leadership position. The corporation has no other defense-related operations." 

Seventy organizations, ranging from Goodyear, Boeing, Westinghouse, Bechtel, and the University of Tennessee down to small firms, expressed an initial interest in succeeding Union Carbide. After careful consideration, DOE decided to keep the Oak Ridge and Paducah facilities under a single contractor. A year after Union Carbide's decision, DOE requested proposals for operating the Laboratory and the other facilities, and late in 1983 it received formal responses from a half dozen corporations and companies. It narrowed the field to three—Westinghouse, Rockwell, and Martin Marietta. In December, it accepted the proposal of Martin Marietta Energy Systems, part of the Martin Marietta Corporation, known nationally for its defense and aerospace work. 

Martin Marietta Corporation was formed in 1961 by the merger of Glenn Martin's aircraft company with Grover Hermann's American-Marietta Company. Aircraft pioneer Glenn Martin, a partner with Wilbur Wright, built bombers for the Army during World War I; later, the firm built such famous aircraft as the "China Clippers" and the Enola Gay. Grover Hermann, an entrepreneur from Marietta, Ohio, had organized one of the first industrial conglomerates in the United States. Known best for its defense and aerospace contract projects, Martin Marietta Corporation managed production of aluminum and construction materials and supervised government-sponsored defense, space, and communications initiatives. With its corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, it had five operating companies employing 40,000 people at 128 sites throughout the nation. In 1984, it had major contracts for the space shuttle and MX missile designs and research laboratories located in Denver, Orlando, and Baltimore. To administer the Laboratory and other Oak Ridge and Paducah facilities, it formed the subsidiary Energy Systems, Incorporated. 

To the relief of Laboratory management and personnel, the transition from Union Carbide to Energy Systems began in January 1984 and proceeded on schedule with minimal impact on Laboratory staff or activities. In April 1984, Energy Systems took full responsibility for Laboratory operations along with the K-25 and Y-12 facilities in Oak Ridge and the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant in Kentucky. Later, DOE added the Portsmouth, Ohio, enrichment facilities to the Martin Marietta operations contract. 

Although day-to-day operations remained much the same, the change in administration brought new long-term directions for the Laboratory. Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc., was the first contractor-operator at the Laboratory without a chemical engineering background; its roots lay in prompt delivery of high-quality technology under contract with government and other agencies. Its agreement with DOE for operating the Laboratory, moreover, contained innovative provisions, including reinvesting a percentage of its annual fee as venture capital in Oak Ridge, developing an Oak Ridge technology innovation center, and pursuing an aggressive technology transfer program. 

To accelerate spin-off of Oak Ridge technology to industry, Energy Systems proposed to license DOE patent rights for technologies developed at the Laboratory. In 1985, DOE approved this proposal. Energy Systems could now license the right to manufacture products or provide services based on science and technology developed at the Laboratory. 

This approach would facilitate technology transfer because companies acquiring such rights would not have to face competition. In return, the companies would pay royalties or license fees to Energy Systems, which would be reinvested in product refinement, prototype production, royalty shares for inventors, university programs, or other technology transfer activities. This initiative was in accord with President Reagan's policies encouraging private-sector growth and economic development through transfer of valuable scientific findings to the world of commerce.

MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES

At the time of the 1984 transition, Director Postma had four associate directors administering technical activities. Don Trauger oversaw nuclear and engineering technologies, including the Chemical Technology, Engineering Technology, Fuel Recycle, and Instrumentation and Controls divisions, together with the Laboratory's nuclear reactor, fuel reprocessing, nuclear safety, and waste management programs. Murray Rosenthal supervised the Laboratory's research in advanced energy systems performed by the Energy and Fusion Energy divisions along with the conservation, fossil energy, and fusion programs. Alex Zucker administered the physical sciences research conducted by the Physics, Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Solid State, Engineering Physics and Mathematics, and Metals and Ceramics divisions. Chester Richmond headed biomedical and environmental research activities conducted by the Biology, Environmental Sciences, and Health and Safety Research divisions; the Information Center complex also was assigned to him. Support and services divisions reported to the executive director, Kenneth Sommerfeld.

HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT 

The Laboratory's biomedical and environmental programs may have had the most direct influence on American life during the 1980s. At least, the environmental and health problems they addressed dominated the news media during the decade. In keeping with trends at DOE, funding for Laboratory environmental and health research increased. As a result, the Laboratory's Environmental Sciences Division, directed by Stanley Auerbach and later by David Reichle, and its Health and Safety Research Division, directed by Stephen Kaye, flourished. By the end of the 1980s, nearly a quarter of the Laboratory's program budget supported environmental and health research. 

Webb Van Winkle, Pat Mulholland, Jerry Elwood, and Denis Newbold collect samples after releasing a tracer in the Walker Brance Watershed.
Webb Van Winkle, Pat Mulholland, Jerry Elwood, and Denis Newbold collect samples after releasing a tracer in the Walker Brance Watershed.

The Laboratory's basic ecological research continued to concentrate on understanding the processes by which contaminants move through the environment and on identifying the ecological effects of energy production. When the National Environmental Research Park opened as an outdoor laboratory in 1980, studies of southern and Appalachian regional ecosystems continued. The Laboratory also expanded its hydrologic and geochemical expertise in support of DOE waste management programs to examine the effects of waste on the environment. 

The Laboratory's study of indoor air pollution, started in 1983 by members of the Health and Safety Research Division for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, received a great deal of media attention. Laboratory surveys found that residents of newer homes with tighter construction and improved insulation were exposed to indoor air pollution. Of special concern was radon gas, a decay product of natural uranium in the ground that seeped upward and concentrated in the more tightly sealed homes. If inhaled, it was considered a potential cause of lung cancer. Manufacturers soon were selling radon detection kits to homeowners and urging them to vent the gas from their homes if the levels of indoor radon exceeded government guidelines. 

Risk assessment, whose practitioners analyze the potential risks posed by energy technologies and industrial processes, emerged as an important field within the Laboratory. Such assessment involves extensive use of computer modeling, laser optics, and advanced instrumentation to detect and examine the impacts of energy- and chemical-related compounds on ecosystems. Much of this work concentrated on specific chemicals cited as potential agents of contamination by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The ecological challenges presented to the Laboratory during the 1980s extended from the region and nation to the world beyond. Biomedically, long-term studies of carcinogenesis, mutagenesis, and other damages to organisms continued with major support from the National Cancer Institute and other institutes of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Margaret Yette and Rise Matsunami pick a recombinant clone from a bacterial plate.
Margaret Yette and Rise Matsunami pick a recombinant clone from a bacterial plate.

Within the Biology Division, research changed dramatically during the 1980s because of the advent of genetic engineering and recombinant DNA technology. Biologists learned to alter genes as simply as they had combined and separated chemicals in earlier times. This expanding capability permitted them to characterize cancer-causing genes, clarify the mechanisms for regulating genes, produce scarce proteins for studies, and design new proteins. Major Laboratory research initiatives included basic studies of proteins and nucleic acids, together with DNA repair, DNA replication, and protein synthesis, which relate to the response of biological systems to environmental stresses. 

A Biology Division group led by Fred Hartman, for example, endeavored to use protein engineering to improve crops. Hartman's group sought to alter a plant enzyme so that it no longer used oxygen to break down carbohydrates while synthesizing them from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If they could successfully alter this enzyme to improve its efficiency, they might increase the growth and yield of plants useful for food and energy production. 

As funding for basic sciences declined in favor of support for the applied sciences, the number of Biology Division researchers shrank during the 1980s to less than half the number employed during the 1960s. It retained a distinguished staff, however, and took pride in the fact that 17 biologists who had worked at the Laboratory were elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Kathleen Ambrose and F. F. (Russ) Knapp evaluate the properties of a radiopharmaceutical heart-imaging agent.
Kathleen Ambrose and F. F. (Russ) Knapp evaluate the properties of a radiopharmaceutical heart-imaging agent.

The Laboratory's emphasis on production, development, and use of radiopharmaceuticals contributed to improved public health in several ways during the 1980s. F.F. (Russ) Knapp's Nuclear Medicine Group in the Health and Safety Research Division made news by developing new radioactive imaging agents for medical scanning diagnosis of heart disease, adrenal disorders, strokes, and brain tumors. Stable isotopes produced in the calutrons of the Chemical Technology Division were converted into radioisotopes such as thallium to provide the tracing material for millions of heart scans, which contributed substantially to national health care. By the end of the 1980s, DOE estimated that nearly 100 million Americans annually received improved diagnosis or treatment partly as a result of medical isotope research and production at the Laboratory and other DOE facilities.

Tom Butler adjusts the ORNL-developed iridium generator used to identify infant heart defects while Clarence Guyer monitors the radioactivity with a dosimeter.
Tom Butler adjusts the ORNL-developed iridium generator used to identify infant heart defects while Clarence Guyer monitors the radioactivity with a dosimeter.

Another medical advance arose from work at the Solid State Division's Surface Modification and Characterization Collaborative Research Center. Here, various ion-beam and pulsed-laser techniques were used to improve and characterize the properties of materials, giving them harder surfaces, more resistance to wear and corrosion, and improved electrical or optical properties. Applied initially to such semiconducting materials as silicon for solar cells, these techniques later proved beneficial in the development of other new materials, including surgical alloys. 

Each year, for example, thousands of patients had been fitted with artificial hip joints made of a titanium alloy. Because body fluids caused corrosion and wear in each implant, they had to be replaced after about 10 years. At the Laboratory, James Williams and collaborators implanted nitrogen ions into the titanium alloy to modify the surface. Ion implantation made the artificial joints much more resistant to wear and the corrosive action of body fluids, significantly increasing the lifetime of such joints. This process was incorporated into a new line of medical products marketed by a private company. (See related article, Ion Implantation of Materials.)

James Williams holds an artificial hip joint made from titanium alloy implanted with nitrogen ions using technology he helped pioneer.
James Williams holds an artificial hip joint made from titanium alloy implanted with nitrogen ions using technology he helped pioneer.

New devices in the Biology and Health and Safety Research divisions made possible the imaging of single atoms and of DNA strands during the 1980s. Scanning tunneling microscopes, developed in 1980 and first used for research on semiconductor surfaces, were built at the Laboratory during the decade. These microscopes, which gave new meaning to the word microscopic, could image supercoiled DNA molecules, showing structural changes and the binding of proteins and other substances to the strands of genetic material. Operated by David Allison, Bruce Warmack, and Thomas Ferrell, the new electron and photon microscopes promised to assist in mapping and determining the sequences of chemical bases in genes, thus opening new frontiers in biological research. 

A team of Environmental Sciences and Chemical Technology researchers sought to use microorganisms in bioreactors to rid the environment of PCBs and other toxic wastes. Experiments along Bear Creek in Oak Ridge indicated that aerating and watering PCB-contaminated soil encouraged growth of micro-organisms that could digest PCBs and convert them into less toxic substances. This success led to additional investigations into bacterial capabilities for digesting and converting other toxic materials. 

For many years, researchers in the Health and Safety Research Division analyzed the accuracy of personnel dosimeters for the Laboratory and outside agencies. Other agencies mailed dosimeters to the Laboratory, and the devices were checked by exposure to measured radiation at the Health Physics Research Reactor. In 1989, the Laboratory opened the Radiation Calibration Laboratory for checking dosimeters, radiobiological experiments, and related purposes. This laboratory helped fill the research needs stymied by closure of the Health Physics Research Reactor.

ADVANCED ENERGY SYSTEMS

Murray Rosenthal's advanced energy systems activities, including the fossil energy, conservation, and fusion programs, were threatened with loss of program support during the early Reagan years. The Reagan administration dispensed with most of the fossil energy program, severely curbing fossil energy research at the Laboratory. However, after a brief and limited decline, the energy conservation program began to grow again. The fusion program, moreover, continued to progress and received DOE and congressional approval to build two substantial plasma confinement experiments.

Eli Greenbaum studies photosynthetic water splitting for releasing energy-rich gases and makes bioelectric materials. Mark Reeves and James Thompson work behind him.
Eli Greenbaum studies photosynthetic water splitting for releasing energy-rich gases and makes bioelectric materials. Mark Reeves and James Thompson work behind him.

One of the ORNL fusion projects, known as the Advanced Toroidal Facility (ATF), was the world's largest stellarator. The stellarator concept had been investigated earlier in the United States at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, but it was difficult both to analyze and build. Most of the U.S. effort was devoted to the newly invented tokamak. However, stellarator development was continued elsewhere in the world, most notably in Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. ORNL recommended to DOE that the prospects for this fusion approach were promising enough that the United States should reenter the field. After a period of review, DOE concurred and the ATF was built at the Y-12 Plant on the site of earlier tokamaks using major pieces of equipment remaining from that program. 

The other experiment that evolved from the Laboratory's ELMO Bumpy Torus program was known as EBT-II. After a contract to build EBT-II had been awarded, the Fusion Energy Division's refined analysis of the original Elmo Bumpy Torus program indicated that EBT-II's performance would not be as promising as predicted earlier. The Laboratory recommended that its EBT-II program be terminated, and a panel of fusion experts agreed.

Charles Scott and Charles Hancher examine a fluidized-bed bioreactor used to reduce nitrate concentrations in wastewater.
Charles Scott and Charles Hancher examine a fluidized-bed bioreactor used to reduce nitrate concentrations in wastewater.

Energy conservation, so popular during the Carter administration, received a cold shoulder from the Reagan administration. One critical official, declaring that energy conservation meant "being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter," contended that higher energy prices would provide the only incentive needed for conservation. The administration mandated sharp cuts in conservation research funding, forcing the abrupt termination of some energy conservation projects at the Laboratory. Congress, however, restored some of the budget reductions, and the energy conservation program flourished again during Reagan's second term. 

In energy conservation research, Eric Hirst and his colleagues in the Energy Division evaluated the benefits and costs of utility and government conservation programs that offered homeowners information on, or even incentives for, cutting the use of electricity. They recommended continuing support for installation of attic insulation and double-pane windows, for caulking and weatherstripping, and for insulating water heaters.

Wes Shumate injects a culture of bacteria into an experimental bioreactor at the Laboratory.
Wes Shumate injects a culture of bacteria into an experimental bioreactor at the Laboratory.

In the 1980s the Laboratory managed a DOE program that developed and tested technologies designed to make electric power systems safer, more reliable, and more efficient. ORNL staff, led by Toim Reddoch and Paul Gnadt, helped plan, design, and conduct a successful automated distribution experiment for Athens, Tennessee. The experiment was a milestone in changing the patterns of electricity use, or load management, which was first explored at ORNL by Hugh Long. 

As another example, David Greene and associates in the Energy Division collected data on the use of energy for transportation. They developed models for predicting how much energy would be used under various transportation scenarios, such as increasing fuel efficiency of new cars and using "smart" cars to help drivers avoid congested areas and reach their destinations faster. 

Laboratory studies of improved building insulation continued, and George Courville, Michael Kuliasha, and Bill Fulkerson sought the creation of a Roof Research Center. This program, initiated in 1985 as a cooperative effort of DOE and the building industry, measured transfer of heat through roofing structures, assessed how structures reflected or absorbed solar energy, and projected how long the structures would last. In climate simulation facilities added to the Roof Research Center in 1987, instrumented roof structures provided data for computer modeling of roofing designs. At this unique industrial user facility directed by Paul Shipp and Jeff Christian, roofing research identified significant convective heat losses in common blown attic insulation and worked with the building insulation industry to devise more efficient systems. (See related article, Raising the Quality of Roof Research.)

In cooperation with the National Bureau of Standards and industry, Laboratory studies of improved home appliances produced significant results as well, notably in development of absorption heat pumps for heating and cooling that could be powered with natural gas instead of electricity.

Robert DeVault works at a computer model of the gas-fired absorption chiller he invented for cooling large buildings.
Robert DeVault works at a computer model of the gas-fired absorption chiller he invented for cooling large buildings.

The Energy Division's Michael Kuliasha and Robert DeVault managed subcontracts with industrial firms to improve and commercialize these heat pumps. Thanks to these and other innovative ventures, the Laboratory's conservation and renewable energy program recovered its losses; in fact, its annual budget rose from $28 million at the start of the decade to $46 million by 1988. 

In the nuclear power industry, proper welding is as critical to safety as it is in most other industries—perhaps even more so. The Welding and Brazing Group established at the Laboratory in 1950, therefore, had many opportunities to improve welding technology and gained worldwide recognition for its contributions. 

National energy production has been hampered when poor welds shut down nuclear power plants, coal-fired plants, and petroleum refineries. In 1985, when Alex Zucker asked welding specialist Stan David and physicist Lynn Boatner to review Laboratory research on composite materials, they concluded that a multidisciplinary attack on fundamental welding problems could be fruitful. 

PHYSICAL SCIENCES

The Laboratory's physical science research efforts, under the direction of Alex Zucker and later Bill Appleton, focused on nuclear physics, chemistry, and materials science. Researchers used the Holifield Heavy Ion Research Facility, neutron scattering facilities at the High Flux Isotope Reactor, the Surface Modification and Characterization Research Center, and other new facilities. (See related article, Neutron Scattering Research: Born in Oak Ridge.)

Basic research on the chemistry of coal and solvent extraction continued at the Laboratory, but the loss of most of the fossil energy program took several divisions into the field of bioconversion as a potential source of energy and improved waste disposal management. 

Bioconversion research sought to use microorganisms to convert organic materials—sewage, solid wastes, woody biomass, coal, or corn--into fuels. Rather than liquefying coal with heat and pressure, for example, Charles Scott and teams in the Chemical Technology Division turned to bioreactors in which microorganisms convert coal to liquids. In another case, the Laboratory cooperated with the A.E. Staley Corporation, a corn products company with a plant near Loudon, Tennessee, to improve fermentation of corn using a fluidized-bed bioreactor in which bacteria converted almost all the sugar in corn into ethanol, which can be used as a petroleum substitute. 

Materials research rose to the forefront of the Laboratory's efforts in physical sciences during the 1970s and 1980s. The Laboratory was a pioneer in the development of new alloys, high-temperature materials, specialized ceramics, and composite materials. It also developed new techniques to modify surfaces of materials, improving their properties. These successes placed it in a position to contribute directly to industrial technology applications. 

The user facility attracting the greatest attention during the 1980s was the High Temperature Materials Laboratory (HTML). First proposed in 1977 as part of DOE's Basic Energy Sciences Program, it required a decade of efforts by Alex Zucker, Fred Young, John Cathcart, Victor Tennery, James Weir, James Stiegler, Carl McHargue, Ted Lundy, and associates to get the $20 million user facility completed.

The High Temperature Materials Laboratory was completed in 1986.
The High Temperature Materials Laboratory was completed in 1986.

Deferred by the Reagan administration in 1981, persistent academic and industrial interest overcame the administration's initial resistance and abruptly shifted the project to the front burner. In that shift, the HTML was funded in 1983 by DOE's Energy Conservation Program, which had become a major supporter of materials development. The award-winning HTML building, which houses 49 laboratories and 72 offices for staff and visitors, opened in April 1987. 

The High Temperature Materials Laboratory fostered exactly the sort of scientific research the Reagan administration demanded. Its modern instruments, microscopes, furnaces, and other research equipment have made possible the characterization, testing, and processing of ceramics to help develop materials for the most energy-efficient engines. Heat-resistant ceramic or intermetallic components may be used for advanced highly efficient engines that operate at elevated temperatures that would melt ordinary metal alloys. The Laboratory's research in these fields promises to help maximize the fuel efficiency of vehicle, aircraft, and rocket engines. These materials also could promote development of superconducting magnets, advanced electronic components, and lightweight armor for tanks and other military applications.

Larry Allard operates a high-resolution, transmission electron microscope to study high-temperature superconducting materials.
Larry Allard operates a high-resolution, transmission electron microscope to study high-temperature superconducting materials.

In 1985 when President Reagan visited the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, ORNL Director Herman Postma had an opportunity to tell the president about Laboratory activities. Using its development of wear-resistant artificial hip joints by ion implantation as an example, Postma emphasized the Laboratory's new role as a center for cooperative research with universities and industry. Instead of closeting its research behind a fence, the Laboratory had become a place that opened its doors to collaboration and innovation. "We have large and unique facilities in Oak Ridge, and we open them to users from throughout the country," he told the president. "We have also helped the University of Tennessee to establish centers of its own that are privately funded by industry. Perhaps most importantly, we share accomplishments." 

Laboratory management made a bold decision in the mid-1980s that changed the face of computing at ORNL. At the time Energy Systems had a centralized Computing and Telecommunications organization, and each division at ORNL assumed responsibility for its own computers and scientific needs. Only the Engineering Physics and Mathematics Division, directed by Fred Maienshein and later Robert Ward, was conducting research on computing. ORNL management decided to look beyond the supercomputers of the day and initiate an aggressive program in the new architecture of parallel computing. This decision laid the groundwork for the Laboratory to become a winning competitor for a center of collaboration to solve computer problems of national interest when parallel computing became the wave of the future in the 1990s. 

The Laboratory's responsiveness to a new set of national needs brought it out of the doldrums of the early 1980s into renewed prosperity. After setbacks during Reagan's first term, the Laboratory's overall operating budget rose to $392 million in 1988, slightly larger in constant dollars than it had been in 1980.

SEED MONEY SPREADS

Postma viewed the seed money program for exploratory studies as an undiluted success. Since the program's beginnings in 1974, seed money projects had brought about four dollars in new research funding to the Laboratory for every dollar invested internally. 

To build on this success, the Laboratory in 1984 established two new exploratory research funding opportunities: a Director's Research and Develop-ment Fund for larger projects and a Technology Transfer Fund to encourage commercially promising research. It is our "strong view," Postma asserted, "that the best judges of technical opportunities are those doing the work and their peers." 

Seed money projects provided grants of up to $100,000 for one year's work, long enough for the work to produce results that could attract attention and funding from a sponsor. The Director's Research and Development Fund created in 1984 supported larger projects, ranging from $100,000 to $600,000, selected from proposals submitted by Laboratory divisions. 

Among early projects supported by the Director's Fund was a project managed by Don Trauger and James White to assess the commercial feasibility of smaller, safer nuclear reactors. Promising designs under study included liquid-metal-cooled reactors; process-inherent ultimately safe (PIUS) reactors; small boiling-water reactors; and high-temperature, gas-cooled, prismatic, and pebble-bed-fueled reactors. 

ROBOTICS 

Another Director's Fund project of 1984 was the Center for Engineering Systems Advanced Research (CESAR), which was established in the Engineering Physics and Mathematics Division. Headed by Charles Weisbin, this center focused on computer problem solving through artificial intelligence resembling human reasoning. The "reasoning" generated by machine-produced artificial intelligence was to be exercised through remotely controlled robots capable of working in such hostile environments as outer space, battlefields, areas contaminated by radiation, or coal mines.

Katie Vandergriff checks a gear pump module used in a servomanipulator developed for remote operations in fuel reprocessing.
Katie Vandergriff checks a gear pump module used in a servomanipulator developed for remote operations in fuel reprocessing.

Since the days when the Laboratory recovered plutonium from the Graphite Reactor and Waldo Cohn initiated radioisotopes production, remote control of operations in hostile environments had been a Laboratory specialty. Elaborate servomanipulators had been designed and built to accomplish work from behind the protection afforded by concrete or lead walls. Moreover, Mel Feldman, William Burch, and leaders of the Fuel Recycle Division had become interested in using robots to accomplish nuclear fuel reprocessing through teleoperations from a distance—or, as Feldman put it, to project human capabilities into hostile workplaces without the actual presence of humans. 

In the mid-1980s, the Laboratory formed a TeleRobotic task force, managed by Sam Meacham, to acquire new programs and sponsors for research in robotics and teleoperations. For this effort, the Laboratory received support from NASA to develop the Man-Equivalent TeleRobot for satellite refueling and space-station construction. It also received funding from DOE's new Office of Civil Radioactive Waste Management to assess applications of robotics and remote technology for the proposed Monitored Retrievable Storage facility that was intended to provide temporary storage for high-level nuclear waste. 

Joe Herndon checks the advanced servomanipulator.
Joe Herndon checks the advanced servomanipulator.

Members of the Fuel Recycle, Instrumentation and Controls, and Engineering divisions contributed to the robotics program. Also, the Engineering Physics and Mathematics Division broadened its technological bases in robotics and artificial intelligence. These initiatives led to the Robotics and Automation Council, the precursor of the Laboratory's Robotics and Intelligent Systems Program headed by Charles Weisbin and then by Joseph Herndon. 

In 1985, the Laboratory began tests of a motor-driven robot that could sense its surroundings through sonar and machine vision and respond to computer commands relayed by radio. Investigators Reinhold Mann, William Hamel, and associates improved the basic design to create one of the world's most computationally powerful robots. Nearly the size of a small car, it could sense its surroundings, deal with unexpected events, and learn from experience.

Acquiring funding from DOE, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Army, and the Air Force for robotics research, the Laboratory formed the Robotics and Process Systems Division in the early 1990s and initiated research aimed at devising remotely controlled robots with "common sense." One early accomplishment was the robotic mapping of waste-filled silos at DOE's Fernald, Ohio, facility. The robotic effort helped DOE complete the project on schedule and saved millions of dollars in the process.

An ORNL experimental robot delivers the 1985 State of the Laboratory address to Director Herman Postma.
An ORNL experimental robot delivers the 1985 State of the Laboratory address to Director Herman Postma.

In related work, the Engineering Physics and Mathematics Division also engaged in "human factors" research to understand how to ease the operator's mental work load to minimize errors in the control of nuclear reactors. Such research was later used to evaluate driver response to intelligent vehicles and highway systems. 

In the words of one Laboratory scientist, robotics research resembled a "Buck Rogers adventure." For children of today's generation, Star Trek, not Buck Rogers, may be a more apt analogy from the world of entertainment. But for both young and old, the effort again proved science's unique ability to enliven the imagination by turning the fantastic into reality. 

CHERNOBYL'S FALLOUT 

Oak Ridge, America, and all the world watched and worried in April 1986 as a radioactive cloud from the massive reactor failure at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union circled the globe. The Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania had taken place seven years before but remained a fresh memory for many people concerned about the safety of nuclear power. The far more serious accident at Chernobyl renewed public fears and further dampened hope of reviving commercial nuclear power in the United States. The Soviet tragedy also caused a massive DOE reexamination of reactor safety throughout the nation, including detailed inspection of reactors at the agency's nuclear facilities. An industry that had been reeling from mistakes and mishaps for two decades now went into a tailspin. (See related article, Quest for Fail-Safe Reactors.) 

The April 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union stimulated intense investigations of reactor safety throughout the world.
The April 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union stimulated intense investigations of reactor safety throughout the world.

DOE funding for nuclear power research at the Laboratory had been severely curtailed during the 1980s, even before the Chernobyl accident. "ORNL used to be thought of as a nuclear energy laboratory, a facility whose main mission was fission," Postma remarked in 1986. "That obviously is not the case now." ORNL's reactor research budget plummeted from $50 million in 1980 to $13 million in 1986, representing only 3% of the Laboratory's total budget. 

A few weeks after Chernobyl, Postma appointed a committee chaired by Don Trauger to review safety at the aging High Flux Isotope Reactor. After locating and assessing the data, the committee learned the reactor's vessel had been embrittled more than predicted by 20 years of neutron bombardment. In November 1986, the Laboratory shut down the reactor and DOE kept it idle to conduct a thorough investigation because of safety and management concerns.

Ken Belitz, Michael Farrar, Greg Kickendahl, Robert Cupp, and William Hill monitor tests of the High Flux Isotope Reactor pressure vessel in 1987.
Ken Belitz, Michael Farrar, Greg Kickendahl, Robert Cupp, and William Hill monitor tests of the High Flux Isotope Reactor pressure vessel in 1987.

These precautionary steps had severe impacts: they delayed neutron scattering research and neutron activation analysis, slowed irradiation testing of Japanese fusion reactor materials, and reduced radioisotope production for medical research. The halt in production of californium-252, an isotope vital for cancer research and treatment and industrial uses, was especially critical. 

Concerned about reactor safety management, DOE shut down all reactors at the Laboratory in March 1987. To oversee a safe restarting of at least some of the reactors, Fred Mynatt became the associate director for Reactor Systems, and responsibility for reactor operations was assigned to a new Research Reactors Division. For the first time since its inception in 1943, however, in 1987 ORNL had no nuclear reactors in operation. 

For the Laboratory, the fallout from the Chernobyl accident had a positive side because it stimulated reactor research supported by DOE. ORNL scientists, for example, made calculations to determine the time of the accident—information the Soviets would not reveal. Relying on data on fission-product concentrations in Europe, Laboratory researchers correctly predicted the chemical conditions affecting the two releases of radioactivity from the stricken reactor. In July 1986 ORNL assembled a team from several DOE laboratories to model the Chernobyl reactor systems to better understand the causes, course, and consequences of the accident. The team concluded that the accident might not have happened if the Soviet operators had thoroughly understood their reactor system. 

Fred Mynatt, William Burch, and John Jones led reactor programs at the Laboratory during the 1980s.

FROM ARSENAL TO ENGINE

Although no longer strictly a nuclear laboratory, the multiprogram laboratory at Oak Ridge during the 1980s savored its inheritance in scientific research and experimentation. "The essence of a laboratory is that it experiments," Postma said. "It explores, it hurls itself against the limits of knowledge. In short, it tries. Often it fails." (See related article, The States of the Laboratory.)

Still, the change in national administrations in 1981 and the switch of contractor-operators in 1984 sparked a new phase of research within the Laboratory. The cornerstone of this new age of accomplishment was the expanding partnerships with industries and universities. Between 1980 and 1988, the list of official DOE user facilities at the Laboratory increased from 3 to 12 and the number of guest researchers tripled. In 1992, 4400 guest researchers worked at the Laboratory; 30% of these guests came from industry, compared with 5% in 1980. 

Technology transfer became the second highlight of the Laboratory's surprising renaissance during the Reagan and then Bush administrations. By transferring the Laboratory's scientific and technological advances speedily into the private sector, the administration and Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc., hoped to boost the national economy and improve the competitiveness of U.S. products in international markets. As President George Bush summed it up during a 1992 visit to Oak Ridge, the multiprogram laboratory was being transformed from "the arsenal of democracy into the engine of economic growth."

As the Cold War fades into history, the Laboratory's ability to negotiate the challenging transformation from military arsenal to economic engine is likely to determine how well it serves the nation's interest in the 21st century and beyond.

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]