The Sound of Science

Celebrating 80 Years: A Lab for a New Era

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By the early 1990s, Oak Ridge National Laboratory had transformed into a scientific institution with a diverse research portfolio that went well beyond its nuclear roots in the Manhattan Project. But despite this success, the lab was entering a period of uncertainty. Its facilities were showing their age and there were questions about the national labs' role in a post-Cold War world. In this episode, you’ll hear how ORNL evolved to become the modern research complex we know today. You’ll also hear about how these changes positioned the lab to tackle today’s scientific challenges.



BONNIE NESTOR: We'd sort of gotten to the incurable therefore endurable stage with an awful lot of things.

JEFF SMITH: I think we can all take pride in the fact that this laboratory has made great contributions to the country, and I would hope that it continues to do so. 

STEPHEN STREIFFER: The problems of the 21st century are going to be ones that Oak Ridge and the Department of Energy National Laboratories are really uniquely positioned to be able to attack.


JENNY: Hello everyone and welcome to “The Sound of Science,” the podcast highlighting the voices behind the breakthroughs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

MORGAN/JENNY: We’re your hosts, Morgan McCorkle and Jenny Woodbery.


JENNY: In the early 1990s, Oak Ridge National Laboratory was celebrating 50 years as a scientific institution. 

MORGAN: As you heard in the last episode, the lab had transformed into a scientific institution with a diverse research portfolio that went well beyond its nuclear roots in the Manhattan Project. But despite this success, questions began to arise about the necessity of the national labs in a post-Cold War world. 

BONNIE NESTOR: The period between 1993 and 2000 was really an interesting one. When the Cold War ended, you would think that would only have affected the defense labs, the weapons labs, but the reverberations from that -- the whole lab system was perturbed. There was a lot of concern about why does DOE need so many laboratories? Does it need all these labs? What do they all do? Are they all doing the same thing? Isn't this duplicative? So, there was a real focus on okay, what do we do? What is our mission?  

JENNY: That’s Bonnie Nestor. She retired in 2020 after nearly 45 years at the lab. Like Bill Cabage in our last episode, she’s another one of ORNL’s unofficial historians. 

MORGAN: Hazel O'Leary, who was Secretary of Energy from 1993-97, appointed a committee to examine the labs' missions and activities and propose options for future management and directions. 

NESTOR: The Galvin Commission, which was chartered, I think in ’94, was clarifying in a lot of ways. That was I think, the driver for actually sitting down and going through, okay, what are the core competencies? What is Oak Ridge good at? What are we best at? What can we do uniquely or better than anybody else? Will Oak Ridge continue to be the kind of lab it's been? Will Oak Ridge be asked to do different things? Because we did not have a modern flagship research facility at the time. Will Oak Ridge be on the list of labs to close if there's a lab closure commission, which was proposed multiple times in Congress as an analogue to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. 

JENNY: Another issue facing the lab was its aging, outdated facilities.

NESTOR: You know, it's kind of the thing that you live with every day, you kind of get used to it? You stop noticing how shabby it is. It's interesting, though that I've been looking at the 1993 institutional plan. And there is a comment in there about the generally shabby appearance of the laboratory. They were very upfront about it with their DOE folks, that you know, things had been neglected. 

JENNY: ORNL’s leadership worried that the perceived ambiguity of its mission, coupled with the aging appearance of the site, would put it in danger of being shuttered. But by reexamining the lab’s mission, they identified signature strengths in energy-related R&D, advanced materials, neutron science, and scientific computing. These could -- and would -- become ORNL’s flagship research programs and would cement its place in the scientific community for decades more to come. 

 MORGAN: In this episode, you’ll hear how the lab transformed into the modern research complex we know today. You’ll also hear about these changes positioned the lab to tackle today’s scientific challenges and what the next 80 years might hold for this storied institution. 


JENNY: In 2000, ORNL welcomed a new managing contractor. UT-Battelle is a partnership between the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute that was formed to run the laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy. Prior to this, ORNL and the other two Manhattan Project sites in Oak Ridge – Y-12 and K-25 – had been managed by a single contractor. But as the missions for each site evolved, splitting up the contract made more sense. 

JEFF SMITH: It was in 1998 that the department began to break that contract into three separate contracts, one for cleanup, one for the Y-12 mission and one for the laboratory. And so we bid on that contract in 2000, we being UT-Battelle, just the R&D or the lab contract.

MORGAN: That’s Jeff Smith. He was on the team that secured UT-Battelle’s contract for the lab and served as ORNL deputy for operations for 21 years. During the bidding phase, Jeff was tasked with visiting ORNL to assess what would be needed if UT-Battelle was successful. Needless to say, his first visit to the lab left quite an impression on him.

SMITH: I came to Oak Ridge in the fall. I drove out Bethel Valley Road, that long straight stretch, drove past the entrance to the laboratory, because I didn't realize I had just passed the entrance, and went out to what we effectively call the biology complex and realize that I had passed the laboratory. So I turned around and came back. And I pulled into the entrance and made my way through that massive parking lot, following these dark brown signs that were made with, I don't know, tape had the words spelled out and it said “Visitor's Portal.” And the tape was peeling off. I finally made it to the Visitor’s Portal and I parked my car and went in and it was this orange countertop, Formica, that was chipped. It was, I'll call it fake leather chairs and the seating area. I mean, it was dingy and dark. And it just didn't feel like a good place to welcome people. It just didn't look like anybody cared about the place. It was rundown. Trash bins were full of trash and hadn't been emptied. I mean, just little things, you notice, but it certainly didn't feel like a research campus.

JENNY: Given the worn state of the lab, it was clear that one of the first orders of business would be taking a fresh approach to modernizing the lab’s campus. 

SMITH: It didn't take long to realize that the laboratory had a lot of great people. And it was really, I don't want to oversimplify it, but someone just needed to show them that this place could be different and that's what we did. The real planning for development of what we now know as the modernized campus happened with people here at Oak Ridge. I mean, there were a few of us that showed up, you know, a new management team. But once we gave the staff at the laboratory a chance to envision a different outcome, they became the fuel for the vision and the plan that we ultimately implemented.

MORGAN: Prior to coming to ORNL, Jeff was the deputy for operations at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which had the look and feel of a college campus.

SMITH: Everybody's college has a cool sort of the pedestrian space. I went to Ohio State University's ours was The Oval. We had no pedestrian space that that defined sort of the center of the campus, a place that was easy for people to reference and interesting things could be done there. So create more of a campus-like feel: that was sort of the vision piece. And then the central thought around how to make it happen is we knew the Department of Energy wasn't going to pay for it. 

JENNY: Jeff’s time at PNNL, which is managed by Battelle, had given him experience running facilities at national laboratories, but Oak Ridge was a different challenge.

SMITH: Now the model that we used here was very different than what I had experienced at the other Battelle places I had the opportunity to work. But I was smart enough to know how to ask the right questions, so to speak. So, the modernization plan, the first investment was a private sector investment, that included actually three facilities that are sort of tied together on what we call Main Street. 

MORGAN: These buildings became the anchor of what is now known as the quad. What was once an unsightly parking lot was now a campus-like pedestrian space, flanked with state-of-the-art research facilities and a new visitor’s center. 

JENNY: As I mentioned in the first episode of this special series, my grandfather, Al Sutton Jr., worked at ORNL for 34 years. He retired from the chemistry division in 1989 and didn’t have a chance to visit the lab again until I invited him in 2015. When he arrived on the quad, he was floored by the transformation. And while he found this area of campus almost unrecognizable, one nearby landmark – and a rather notorious one – helped orient him to the lab he once knew so well -- the Swan Pond. 

MORGAN: While a nickname like “Swan Pond” may sound beautiful and serene, Jeff Smith would beg to differ.

SMITH: That pond was a swamp when I showed up. I mean, it was atrocious. And there was a visitor who came to the lab many years ago from England, I'm told, and as a gift to the laboratory after they had visited, they provided a couple of royal swans for the pond. Someone thought, oh, it'd be nice to sit in your physics office or whatever and look out over the pond and see these white swans. So of course they had offspring and so there was, I don't know, a few swans always, white swans, big white swans. Well, to keep the swans on the pond, they had to put up a fence. What do fences do? They fall in disrepair. And so the fence was in disrepair and when I got here, someone had taken that that bright orange construction vinyl fence they had, so they had driven stakes in the ground and surrounded the pond, the swamp, with this orange fence. And, and of course, to keep the swans inside, you have to clip their wings. Because if you don't, they'll fly off. Now they can't fly off and feed themselves so you have to feed the swans. What do you what do you do when you feed swans? Well, you attract geese. By virtue of having this white swan population, we attracted geese to the laboratory because it was easy pickins. Well, what do geese do? Geese make messes. So you couldn't walk around the campus without, you know, stepping in something figuratively and literally. To resolve that problem, we had to get rid of the swans. So that was a dicey exercise because after all, they were a gift from royalty so to speak. And there were people with this laboratory who took great pride in taking care of the swans and they did a good job. But eventually, the pond was the front door of the laboratory and it didn't look so good. 

JENNY: The majestic waterfowl were eventually rehomed to a farm in a neighboring county, thus ending the saga of the swans at ORNL.

MORGAN: Swans aside, Jeff’s vision to modernize the lab set the course for ORNL’s future as a world-class research institution.

SMITH: The lab feels pretty good when you come to the campus today. But if you don't continually invest in it, you know, somebody 20 years from now will come and ask the same questions that I asked which is, “man this place feels rundown.” The challenge now is to keep the laboratory fresh and refreshed. And that takes continual investment, and people who are willing to continue to think about how we can make this place better.

JENNY: Jeff retired from ORNL in 2021, only to come back in 2023 to serve as interim lab director for 10 months. He recently retired for the second time, and we asked him to reflect on his more than two decades at the lab. 

SMITH: I never served in the military. But I feel as though my service as part of these, this DOE laboratory system, and I've worked formally at a couple of them, it's as close to sort of civil service, that I might get. So there’s that part of it. You know, you really feel like you’re serving your country when you’re here working on some of the things we do. At least I do. You know we don't, we don't do nuclear weapons here. You know, we're not part of the national defense infrastructure, but we're an important capability that keeps America strong in a different way. So that feels good. And you can look back through the history of the laboratory and find a whole bunch of things that have been discovered here that provide fundamental changes in the quality of life for our citizens, and for people across the globe. I think we can all take pride in the fact that this laboratory has made great contributions to the country. And I would hope that it continues to do so.


MORGAN: It is next to impossible to sum up the growth and evolution of the lab in a few podcast episodes, but there's a common theme that's held true these past eight decades.

JENNY: And that is ORNL’s ability to tackle the biggest challenges facing the world.

STEPHEN STREIFFER: The problems of the 21st century are going to be ones that Oak Ridge and the Department of Energy National Laboratories are really uniquely positioned to be able to attack. This includes the problems that we face from climate change, the issues around sustainability, food security, water security. All of these also tie back to clean energy.

JENNY: That’s Stephen Streiffer, ORNL’s new director. 

MORGAN: He joined the lab in October 2023, but is no stranger to DOE’s national laboratory system.

JENNY: Prior to coming to ORNL, he served as interim director at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and was at Argonne National Laboratory for 24 years.

STREIFFER: Really what drew me to ORNL is the diversity of the work here, It's obviously the material. materials lab for the complex, it's really well known for that, and it's got a huge ability to deliver on the nation's most challenging problems, particularly in again the materials space and things like isotopes and what we do in neutrons and computing, and all of the things that are important to the world right now in climate change and sustainability. for example, the programs in carbon utilization and sequestration, carbon capture and utilization, as well as other work that we're doing in areas of trying to modernize the electrical grid.

MORGAN: ORNL is harnessing expertise from across the lab to address the complexities of climate change.

SUSAN HUBBARD: Certainly, climate change is one of the most pressing challenges that we are facing throughout the globe. We also recognize that the risks of climate change are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to manage. So, what's Oak Ridge doing about that? We're helping to understand and predict climate change through various pieces that we advance and pull together. So, we perform very complex field experiments to understand how vulnerable systems are responding to climate change, and how different emergent properties evolved. We build and run sophisticated numerical models. And importantly, we really marry these tools to improve our predictions about how ecosystem and atmosphere feedback with each other under this changing climate. 

JENNY: That’s Susan Hubbard. She joined the lab in 2021 from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As ORNL’s deputy for science and technology, she guides the lab’s scientific priorities. 

MORGAN: The research ORNL and the other national labs are doing to understand and combat climate change encompasses large-scale, ambitious initiatives. 

HUBBARD: One example of a great project that Oak Ridge leads, that really is focusing on this is the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment in the Arctic, or NGEE Arctic. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place in the world. It has a lot of carbon that is locked up, if you will, it's buried in frozen permafrost. And as that permafrost thaws, there's a real potential for microbes to use that carbon and respire greenhouse gases, a huge burst of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which further exacerbates climate change. However, as it warms, plants grow, which could take up more CO2. So, it was one of our biggest tipping point questions in environmental climate science and our team is there performing experiments and models that run from microbial scale all the way out to regional scales. And once we get those processes in the model, then we can use that model as sort of a digital simulation to explore how this system could evolve under other circumstances. 

We're similarly doing such, you know, coupled experiments and modeling, in northern peatland ecosystems, which also hold a lot of carbon and how they're responding to warming. We are doing work advanced experiments paired with numerical simulations to address the climate change impact on watersheds, on urban systems. And so, we’re really advancing the science, but honestly to get to a point where our science can be useful for resource managers, for decision makers, really need computational tools that can run with space and time resolutions that are relevant to the problems at hand. 

MORGAN: And thankfully, ORNL has no lack in computational brawn to handle data from these large-scale experiments. 

HUBBARD: We unveiled Frontier, the world's first exascale computer, meaning that of course, now we can do a billion billion calculations per second. This really opens up the door to be able to do computations at time and space scales that matter to people that are managing these systems. And of course, our scientists are working with a broader national lab community to develop what we call the DOE Earth System Model, and to get that code running on Frontier.

JENNY: As scientists at ORNL seek to better understand and predict climate change, the lab is also at the forefront of clean energy research to help move the nation away from fossil fuels. 

HUBBARD: So Oak Ridge’s characteristic of being a basic science lab with a translational ethos is critically important for contributing S&T to this energy transition. And we're working across many, many fronts. For example, Oak Ridge is working to advance nuclear energy, advanced energy storage, clean transportation, clean building technologies, geothermal and offshore wind, clean manufacturing, bioenergy, and many, many others. 


MORGAN: As ORNL’s 80th anniversary comes to a close, we asked Susan Hubbard and Stephen Streiffer to reflect on the throughlines that connect the lab’s past, present and future.

HUBBARD: Certainly, spawning from the Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge and its sister labs were really built with the recognition that large multidisciplinary teams working together, working with powerful research infrastructure, were absolutely necessary to tackle the “big science” questions of the day that were in turn important for national priorities. In fact, our former Oak Ridge laboratory director Alvin Weinberg, who was credited with communicating the meaning and intent of “big science” said in 1967, "Over and over again, it's been demonstrated that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. And that good people from diverse fields working together can make major scientific discoveries that are denied geniuses working in isolation.” So, I would certainly contend that today teamwork is still an enduring value. It was what made the labs from the beginning. It's what distinguishes us now. And it's absolutely what's needed as we tackle these big changes.

STREIFFER: So there are a number of things that we have to do both on the people side, the science side, as well as the facility and infrastructure side, if you will. All of this has to work together to really make power and ORNL great. We've got to continue to recruit the best and the brightest, we have to make people feel like they're welcome in the laboratory, and that everybody is working for the mission, and make sure that we have a climate at Oak Ridge, at the laboratory, that allows people to be their best, it's a respectful climate. And that allows people to work together and again, gives us a foundation to draw from across the nation and the world, as we already do, to bring in not only the best scientists and engineers, but the best across the board. And that's necessary for us to pursue the science. And I think, you know, looking forward that provides the basis where we can keep honoring the history of the great things that we've done in new areas as they come up, not just what we do in materials right now. But looking forward to the problems that we'll be facing. 


JENNY: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Sound of Science.

MORGAN: We hope you enjoyed the 80th anniversary series and will subscribe to the show so you don’t miss an episode when we come back for our next season.

JENNY: Until next time!