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ORNL is poised to have a major role in the future of nuclear physics


The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a bastion of nuclear physics research for the past 80 years, is poised to strengthen its programs and service to the United States over the next decade if national recommendations of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee, or NSAC, are enacted.

“The 2023 Long Range Plan lays out a compelling vision for nuclear science in the United States under multiple budget scenarios,” said Gail Dodge, physicist at Old Dominion University and chair of the NSAC. “Implementation of the Long Range Plan’s recommendations will maintain the nation’s leadership and workforce in nuclear science.”

On Wednesday the NSAC, which advises DOE and the National Science Foundation on nuclear physics, approved a 10-year roadmap, or Long Range Plan. It includes four key priorities that would advance the nation’s nuclear science research program and set the direction of research for another generation of scientists.

The recommendations would give ORNL a continuing critical role in helping maintain the nation’s leadership in nuclear physics for at least the next decade — solving mysteries of how the smallest particles in the universe behave and using that understanding to advance medicine, quantum science, energy, national security and other areas that improve the lives of people everywhere.

Research in nuclear physics — the science of atomic nuclei and their constituents — helps us understand how virtually all ordinary matter in the universe originated and evolved. The cutting-edge research on particles is also used in isotope production, medical diagnosis, national security, energy, nuclear treaty verification, the environment and nuclear applications.

The highest priority, according to the plan, is increasing the budget for nuclear physics in theoretical, experimental and computational research “to capitalize on the extraordinary opportunities for scientific discovery made possible by the substantial and sustained investment of the United States.” This would expand “discovery potential, technological innovation, and workforce development to the benefit of society.” This recommendation, if adopted, would ensure user facilities throughout the country would continue to operate at the highest level and reap the most scientific benefit.

“Each one of the four recommendations has a large impact for ORNL,” said David Radford, ORNL physicist and head of the lab’s Fundamental Nuclear and Particle Physics Section. For example, another recommendation is for funding of multiple large experiments to search for neutrinoless double beta decay; one of these experiments has leadership and significant participation from ORNL scientists. The advisory committee recommends that construction of ton-scale detectors addressing fundamental physics should be a top budgetary priority.

That research, which aims to solve the problem of how matter came to dominate over antimatter, will provide insight into the origin and mass of the neutrino, and in so doing could rewrite the Standard Model of particle physics. The research includes experiments known as CUPID, LEGEND and nEXO proposed by international collaborations. ORNL scientists, including Radford, are leading DOE’s contribution to building LEGEND.

“This could help explain the matter-antimatter imbalance in the universe,” Radford said. “This plan reiterates that the experiment should go forward. That’s very important for this extremely compelling and exciting physics.”

Radford and Cynthia Jenks, ORNL’s associate laboratory director for the Physical Sciences Directorate, said the ORNL impacts at a rollout of the plan on Friday after the plan was released to the public on Wednesday.

Another committee recommendation calls for the “expeditious completion” of the Electron-Ion Collider, a massive particle accelerator that would be built at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Already, ORNL physicists are hard at work designing and building a detector for the system, which, like a precision microscope, will illuminate three-dimensional images of nuclear matter, uncovering how particles like quarks and gluons interact and behave. Experiments on the machine could help answer longstanding questions about the fundamental particles of matter.

An additional recommendation is to advance discovery science for society by investing in scientific projects that offer new strategic opportunities. Such opportunities advance computing, nuclear data for medicine, clean energy, national security, nonproliferation, the environment and space — all areas that are in ORNL’s wheelhouse of research and that would bolster ORNL’s research programs, Radford said.

“ORNL certainly does work in these areas, using emerging technologies to meet national needs,” Radford said, adding that programs in nuclear data, advanced computing, sensing, quantum information and nuclear data all make use of not only physicists but engineers, data scientists and other experts. An example is ORNL’s Advanced Radiation Detection, Imaging, Data Science and Applications group, which is invested in these research areas. Also, high-performance computing research impacts physics experiments around the world, including at CERN in Switzerland and elsewhere.

DOE facilities, such as ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source, or SNS, an Office of Science user facility, are critical to fundamental nuclear physics research by ORNL researchers and other laboratory and university scientists around the world. An important experiment at SNS is the neutron electric dipole moment experiment, which aims to make the world’s best measurement of this property, an accomplishment that would be “paradigm shifting,” the committee says. Similarly, ORNL scientists use DOE’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or FRIB, also a DOE Office of Science user facility, at Michigan State University, which is producing exciting results on decays of never-before-produced isotopes. ORNL helped lead construction of a day-one detector for that facility that has already produced high-impact results.

Such scientific advances rely on a workforce trained in science, and the plan calls for resources to help build the next generation of STEM researchers. This includes ensuring graduate students are fairly compensated and “expanding policies and resources to ensure an environment that is safe and respectful to everyone,” said Shelly Lesher, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. One of the architects of the workforce development section of the plan, Lesher added that the plan calls for exposure of the field to broader populations to increase representation. Like all 17 of America’s DOE national laboratories, ORNL stands to benefit from policies that make it possible for people from all walks of life to join the field, Radford said.

Said Radford, “The training of the future workforce at this lab will help the security and economic prosperity of the country. This is the voice of the community saying what its priorities are and that the nation would benefit tremendously by buying into that and funding nuclear physics at the appropriate level.”

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit Lawrence Bernard