RSICC marks its 50th year


The RSICC's logo reflects its reach within the global scientific community.The RSICC's logo reflects its reach within the global scientific community. (hi-res image)

One of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's longest-running institutions, the Radiation Safety Information Computational Center (RSICC), has its golden anniversary in November. To celebrate the Laboratory hosted a recognition ceremony on October 9 with Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons keynoting the event.

RSICC is a storehouse of invaluable nuclear computational tools and data for modeling and simulating the interaction of radiation with matter. The center acquires the state-of-the art codes and data, preserves them and makes them accessible to the research community.

"Congratulations to the RSICC in its 50th year," Lyons said. "RSICC's innovative and adaptive culture has enabled the center to continuously provide a unique service to its nearly 20,000 customers around the world."

From its Atomic Energy Commission-funded days, the DOE center has expanded its software and data packages beyond radiation shielding to areas that include criticality safety, radiation protection, reactor physics, atmospheric dispersion and environmental dose, radiation dose in medical applications and space shielding applications.

Those are established fields of study now, but in the early 1960s the Atomic Age was barely two decades old and loaded with nothing but promise. Nuclear power was an unbounded energy source for everything from curing disease to powering aircraft that could stay aloft for days.

The idea for the RSICC, like many that emanated from ORNL during the Cold War, can be traced to the late Alvin Weinberg, who as ORNL director chaired a President's Advisory Council convened to deal with the expanse of new data emerging from the nuclear science community. The council -- an A-list group that included two Nobel Prize winners, Eugene Wigner and Joshua Lederberg -- recommended the establishment of information analysis centers after serious determination and debate.

One of the contributors to those waves of information was the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program, which was in full swing at the time. One of the major technological challenges of a nuclear-powered aircraft was the development of materials that could shield the crew from the aircraft's nuclear reactor while being light enough to fly.

Nuclear-powered airplanes never flew, but invaluable data on shielding and radiation transport were obtained during the course of that program. Nuclear reactor development and space flight research were also in their golden ages. ORNL's Everitt Blizard -- now revered as one of the first and foremost authorities on radiation shielding -- strongly recommended preserving all of the resulting shielding and transport data, and the Weinberg committee's idea for information analysis centers provided the right platform.

Three individuals were instrumental in establishing the RSICC: Keith Penney, David Trubey and a remarkable woman, Betty Maskewitz, a mathematics major who migrated to ORNL from K-25, where she had become bored with her job working in the computational center supporting engineers throughout the Oak Ridge complex.

ORNL researchers working on the nuclear aircraft and reactor projects were bringing computational problems to the K-25 computing group to solve, and the research attracted Maskewitz's interest. One afternoon, after fortifying herself with two martinis, she went to ORNL for a preliminary interview and landed a call-back interview with Blizard and, subsequently, a position.

Penney, Trubey and Maskewitz established the Radiation Shielding Information Center, as it was originally called, to build systems for acquiring, analyzing and disseminating shielding information as one of the nation's information analysis centers. The primary focus was on computing codes and data for shielding and nuclear safety analyses. All three individuals would at one time direct RSICC and supported collaborations with similar groups at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to foster the exchange and dissemination of scientific information and computational methods needed to advance the application of nuclear technology.

Maskewitz became an intrepid traveler known throughout the global scientific community. Her scientific clout broke down political barriers: She was one of the first Americans that many scientists behind the Iron Curtain had ever seen. Her kindly escort during a 1969 visit to the Soviet Union turned out to be a KGB general. She won over a stiff Russian greeting committee by explaining her mission was ultimately "to advance the cause of peace."

A 1983 trip to China produced a bounty of climate data. Maskewitz discovered the Chinese had been scrupulous scribes of weather data for centuries, even during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Climate data represent another fount of information; in fact, ORNL's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center is a spinoff of RSICC.

Maskewitz directed RSICC for 18 years and received the American Nuclear Society's Weinberg Medal in 1988. She lived in Oak Ridge from the time she arrived during the Manhattan Project until she passed away in 2008.

Bob Roussin succeeded Maskewitz at a time of great funding uncertainty and significant changes in ORNL management. However, he deftly steered the RSICC team to meet the shifting demands for computational modeling for broad applications of nuclear technology, while gaining support of a new laboratory regime. Roussin's efforts and those of his successors positioned RSIC to take advantage of advances in computing technologies.

Computer codes and the nuclear data are extremely important to anyone working with nuclear materials. Luiz Leal, a distinguished researcher in the Lab's Nuclear Data and Criticality Safety group, explains why.

"Computational methods rely on mathematical models and neutron cross sections to describe the interaction of radiation with matter. The nuclear cross-section represents the probability of a particular interaction and is used in computational models to estimate nuclear reaction rates of interest for many different applications, whether it be dose rates or damage to materials.

"It is the core of the whole thing; you can't do any research without them," Leal said. "You need to know, for example, if a reaction is going to produce a gamma ray, which you'll need to shield."

Bernadette Kirk, who served as RSICC's director during two periods, says RSICC (the name has evolved to the Radiation Safety Information Computational Center to reflect the expansion in the types of codes and data that were acquired, preserved and disseminated by the center) is unique as a DOE center for computer codes specializing in radiation transport. RSICC's computer codes are in three main classifications: fission, fusion and accelerator-based reactions such as those for medical uses and ORNL's own Spallation Neutron Source.

The center's newsletter, matter-of-factly titled "Radiation Safety Information Computational Center," has documented events, conferences and training in the realm of radiation safety related software and data since the center was formed. RSICC just published its 569th issue.

The center is now led by Timothy Valentine and is principally funded by DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration's Nuclear Criticality Program, the NNSA's Nonproliferation Programs and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He believes the necessity of the center's mission is a force that will carry it well beyond a half century.

"Unlike many federal endeavors, RSICC's existence is not based on a unique facility but on an enduring vision that collection, preservation and distribution of scientific tools and data are essential for the evolution of nuclear technology as well as for the education and training of the next generation of scientists and engineers," Valentine said.

"This unique vision has been maintained and supported through many changes in the federal government as well as through changes in leadership within ORNL and is a testament to the value that is placed on the services provided by RSICC."

RSICC's longevity may have been preordained by the committee that initiated the information analysis center concept. Weinberg wrote in 1988 that he wanted to call the panel's 1962 report "Science, Government and the Information Crisis." Bell Labs' John Tukey, however, objected to the word crisis, noting that managing the growing tide of scientific information was a problem that "would be with us forever."

 -  Bill Cabage,  865.574.4399,  October 09, 2012

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