Nuclear Science

By producing 50 grams of plutonium-238, Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers have demonstrated the nation’s ability to provide a valuable energy source for deep space missions.
Nuclear Science Research at ORNL

In World War II’s Manhattan Project, ORNL helped usher in the nuclear age. Today, laboratory scientists are leaders in using nuclear technologies and systems to improve human health; explore safer, more environmentally friendly power; and better understand the structure of matter.

Thanks to its nuclear heritage, ORNL is a world leader in the production of isotopes for medical purposes and research. The lab’s High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) and Radiochemical Engineering Development Center (REDC) together provide the western world’s sole supply of californium-252, an isotope instrumental in a wide variety of uses including cancer therapy, oil exploration, and explosives detection. In fact, isotopes produced at HFIR have contributed to the discovery of seven new elements in the periodic table. Another isotope that can only be produced at HFIR, Nickel-63, is used to detect explosives and drugs at airports and other sensitive locations around the world.

The laboratory also provides leadership in the full spectrum of the nuclear fuel cycle, from fuel development to storage of used fuel. With government, industrial, and academic partners, ORNL researchers are using simulations and modeling to determine safe, efficient ways to extend the lives of nuclear reactors. Much of this work is accomplished through the ORNL-hosted partnership of government, academia, and industry called CASL (the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors). CASL is using the lab’s supercomputers and advanced modeling and simulation techniques to learn how to safely extend the life of reactors and implement new technology that’s more efficient and safer to use. ORNL’s expertise also supports national security through nuclear forensics, nuclear material detection, and fuel-cycle signature analysis.

Fusion energy is another scientific focal point at ORNL, which manages the US contribution to ITER, the international effort to demonstrate fusion’s power-generating potential. When the ITER demonstration reactor comes online, the project will confirm the feasibility of fusion energy—a technology that emits no greenhouse gases, presents no risk of meltdown, produces no long-lived high-level radioactive waste, and offers no potential for nuclear proliferation. ORNL fusion R&D work in plasma physics, fusion reactor materials, plasma materials interactions, plasma heating, and fuel pellet injection technologies is paving the way beyond ITER toward a workable fusion power reactor that will serve future generations.

For scientists interested in advancing nuclear science and technology, Oak Ridge is a premier career option. We have an unmatched combination of computing, reactor, radiochemical and materials research facilities. We also have a vision for new reactor technologies and solving real world problems in the area of nuclear science and engineering. For researchers motivated to build new nuclear technologies, ORNL offers a rewarding and scientifically stimulating environment.