John Glenn launched into orbit, Marvel launched Spider-Man, NASA launched its first communications satellite, Bob Dylan launched “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the world was launched into a missile crisis, and the atomic age entered into its teenage years.
Amid the tumultuous backdrop of 1962, nuclear physicist Alvin M. Weinberg recommended a repository of radiation safety information at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory that persists to this day. Weinberg was the ORNL director, an architect of many nuclear reactors and a leading proponent for understanding the impacts of radiation on people and the environment.
Now observing its diamond anniversary — that repository was launched 60 years ago, in November 2022 — the Radiation Safety Information Computational Center, or RSICC, may be the longest running institution at ORNL, other than the lab itself. Born from the vestiges of the nuclear age, the center was a response to the need to retain valuable information related to radiation protection.
“We started at the request of Dr. Weinberg, who was on a presidential commission to address the wealth of information they were getting in the nuclear age,” said ORNL’s Timothy Valentine, RSICC director. “There were many nuclear experiments being performed at the laboratory, and he recognized the need to preserve that data in perpetuity.”
Now serving as a distribution center for modeling and simulation tools for nuclear science, the center acquires, archives and distributes codes used in nuclear science applications by customers from around the world. These codes’ capabilities cover a broad range of applications including reactor design and safety, nuclear criticality safety, accelerator design, nuclear medicine, space applications and radiation protection. The center has about 10,000 active customers, including governments and industry, Valentine said, that includes more than 100 countries.
“Nuclear energy technology missions have driven the advancement of computational, data and information approaches for many decades, dating back to when ‘computer’ was a job description,” said Katy Huff, DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy. “Throughout that time, RSICC has enabled access to the data and computational tools that U.S. university students, international collaborations and national laboratory scientists use to advance nuclear energy science and engineering.”
Center staff distribute about 4,000 software packages a year, with about half of those going to universities so nuclear energy students will know how to use the codes when they graduate and work in the industry or in research laboratories.
“These are state-of-the-art computational tools, so students get trained on something they are going to use in the future. They are well prepared to make valuable contributions for their employers,” Valentine said.
“RSICC has been delivering codes and support to the worldwide community for nuclear energy for 60 years now, providing common, qualified and validated tools across the world,” said Jeremy Busby, former associate laboratory director for ORNL’s Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate and now associate laboratory director of the Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate. “The magnitude of this contribution to the development and deployment of nuclear energy cannot be overstated.”
The RSICC provides valuable support of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Criticality Safety Program to help ensure safety, said Angela Chambers, program manager at the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The center “supports the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Criticality Safety Program by providing DOE scientists and engineers with the computational tools necessary for evaluation of the safety of fissile material operations across DOE and the nuclear security enterprise ensuring that DOE and NNSA can safely complete their missions to reduce the global danger from weapons of mass destruction and to promote international nuclear safety and nonproliferation,” Chambers said.
“The NCSP works closely with RSICC to provide code packages free of charge to DOE Nuclear Criticality Safety engineers and scientists and nuclear engineering students at U.S. universities.”
Two of the most popular codes are the MCNP® code, developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the SCALE code, developed at ORNL.
“MCNP is the gold standard of radiation protection,” said Valentine, adding that it is used for nuclear criticality safety, reactor design, radiation protection and nuclear medicine. The ITER project, a massive international nuclear fusion reactor under construction in France, uses MCNP for its design.
“Developers and users of the Los Alamos Monte Carlo transport code MCNP have long benefited from the partnership with RSICC,” said Robert Little, former manager of the MCNP team at Los Alamos. “The name was actually RSIC when Los Alamos first distributed MCNP Version 3 through the center in 1983. Over the past four decades, the center has distributed successive versions of the code to tens of thousands of users performing a multitude of important applications in academia, industry and laboratories. This successful partnership has helped secure MCNP as the leading code of its type worldwide.”
While the center is a specialized information analysis center under DOE’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information, it receives support from various parts of the U.S. government including the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, the DOE Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, NNSA’s Nuclear Criticality Safety Program, NNSA’s Office of Naval Reactors, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Six staff members — Mark Baird, Samantha Bowman, Ravindra Gadi, Rebecca Gregor, Lauren LaLuzerne and Emma York — help maintain and distribute the packages. Over the past 11 years, they have distributed more than 35,000 copies of MCNP and SCALE.
RSICC has amassed software from all over the world, not just what was developed in the United States. The center reaches out to developers globally for codes. The developer can benefit from the center’s large database, and as their codes gets used, users provide feedback. There is growing interest in the SERPENT Monte Carlo code developed by VTT in Finland, which is available from RSICC.
“It’s a win-win for developers,” Valentine said. “There is no cost to them to provide us software, and we do all the packaging and advertising. And it’s a great way to get feedback from the user community. In addition, the developers benefit by having more users cite their codes in publications.”
Valentine is quick to acknowledge the center’s beginnings. Three individuals were instrumental in establishing the center: Keith Penney, David Trubey and Betty Maskewitz, a mathematics major who migrated to ORNL from the K-25 uranium enrichment plant, where she was seeking new opportunities and challenges in the field..
Penney, Trubey and Maskewitz established RSIC to build systems for acquiring, analyzing and disseminating shielding information as one of the nation’s information analysis centers. The primary focus was on data for shielding and nuclear safety analyses. All three individuals would at one time direct RSIC 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, Valentine said.
“There is always going to be a need for what we do,” Valentine said. “It’s important to have a centralized place for developers and for the users. It’s cost-effective, as we have the experience required to address changes in federal regulations as well as advancements in computing technology.”
Partnerships are key to the center’s success. According to Chris Hoxie, branch chief of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, RSICC has been a trusted partner since the 1990s when they began managing the agency’s mature reactor licensing codes.
“Today, RSICC manages more than 200 codes on behalf of the NRC, ensuring that the codes’ functionality is maintained. This important service ensures that the NRC’s technical capabilities are not lost and can be confidently used by the agency or the public on problems of interest. Additionally, RSICC is recognized as a global leader in establishing safe and secure processes for code distribution. The NRC values the processes RSICC has established for the agency’s code distributions. The center also provides invaluable guidance to the NRC as it works to ensure that active NRC codes are distributed according to established law,” Hoxie said.
Valentine added, “We have an enduring vision of service to the nuclear science community to provide access to state-of-the-art simulation tools. Our longevity is not built on a physical facility, but on the enduring mission for the DOE, NRC, industry, academia, research labs and foreign countries. It’s that which makes us unique.”
And while many changes have occurred to the federal government over the past 60 years, the RSICC endures.
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. — Lawrence Bernard