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Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate

About the Directorate

The directorate is focused on isotope science and technology, delivering high-impact isotopes that offer a range of applications for industry, science, and medicine, making ORNL a world leader in isotope research, development, and production. 

It is built upon the foundational science performed during the Manhattan Project, when the Lab pioneered world-changing technologies and applications to harness the atom. Using the X-10 Graphite Reactor, the world’s first continuously operated nuclear reactor, ORNL worked to better understand and produce strategically important isotopes. Today, the Lab uses its institutional knowledge and leading nuclear facilities for breakthrough technological innovations.

The directorate is working on advancing the application and production of stable and radioactive isotopes for scientific discovery, life-saving medical treatments, industrial applications, deep space exploration, and national security; advancing technology as the nation’s steward of enrichment science and engineering; and operating, maintaining, and expanding the Lab’s complex of nuclear facilities.

ENABLING DEEP SPACE EXPLORATION

In 2015, ORNL produced 50 grams of plutonium-238, restoring the nation’s capability after nearly 30 years. Since that achievement, the Lab has continued advancing the production of the valuable radioisotope—leveraging the Lab’s High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center, ORNL’s largest hot cell facility—moving closer to the goal of 1.5 kg of Pu-238 annually by 2025. Because of this success, NASA is considering additional deep space missions in the coming decades, and the Mars 2020 mission is using ORNL-produced Pu-238 to help power the Perseverance rover.