Lab that ushered in the atomic era in WWII broadens mission

Oak Ridge innovations reshape the world

The lobby of the Spallation Neutron Source Central Laboratory and Office Complex is seen on the campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Monday, June 10, 2019 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The lobby of the Spallation Neutron Source Central Laboratory and Office Complex is seen on the campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Monday, June 10, 2019 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

America's oldest and biggest research lab in Oak Ridge has reshaped science around the world and remains a key asset for East Tennessee's workforce, businesses and economy. This Sunday and next, the Times Free Press looks at some of the work of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its impact in our region.

Today: Oak Ridge's legacy of innovation and its future with the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.

Next weekend: How Oak Ridge built - and continues to build - the world's fastest computer with a little help from Chattanooga.


Chuck Fleischmann recalls driving from his home in Ooltewah north to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for his first visit after he was elected to Congress in 2010.

"I knew that Oak Ridge was the birth place of the atomic bomb, but I was totally unaware of the tremendous depth, magnitude and importance of all of the work of the entire Department of Energy reservation, especially the Oak Ridge National Laboratory," the Tennessee Republican lawmaker said.

Nearly a decade later, Fleischmann champions Oak Ridge as "the most diverse, strongest and productive national lab" in America and a secret jewel for his East Tennessee district.

"We're not only leading the country at Oak Ridge; we're leading the world," Fleischmann said.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Fleischmann works to sustain the nearly $6 billion of annul appropriations for all of the Oak Ridge facilities, including ORNL, Y-12, the Uranium Processing Facility and the ongoing environmental cleanup of the weapons production facility. Fleischmann has pushed for the pioneering technology developed in what was once "the secret city" to be commercialized by American industry, especially in his hometown of Chattanooga.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is one of 17 U.S. Department of Energy labs across the country and is the largest of 10 science labs. As the oldest, broadest and biggest of the federal government's science labs, the fruits of Oak Ridge's research have helped to reshape everything from energy, transportation and the way goods are manufactured.

Thomas Zacharia, the Indian-born American scientist who has worked at ORNL for 32 years, was named to head the lab two years ago and he frequently heralds the facility as the most impactful of all of the national labs.

"Because of the longevity, the breadth and the opportunity that this country has given to Oak Ridge, we certainly have had a proven track record of making a difference and impacting the world," he said. "I truly believe that there is not a single day that goes by where Oak Ridge innovation and technology has not touched the lives of every human being living anywhere in the civilized world. I know that is a big and bold statement, but it happens to be true."

Winning World War II

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory celebrated its 75th anniversary last year since work began under the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon ahead of Nazi Germany. ORNL - originally known as X-10 during World War II - was established in a rural East Tennessee valley in early 1943 and by the fall of that year the "X-10 Pile" graphite reactor went critical for the first time, marking the beginning of the atomic era.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Established: 1943Budget: $1.4 billionDirector: Dr. Thomas ZachariaStaff: 4,750Campus: ORNL occupies about 10,000 acres of the 35,000-acre Oak Ridge ReservationOperating agency: UT–BattelleWebsite:

Oak Ridge helped develop the first atomic bomb with the aid of the gaseous diffusion plant at K-25, the Y-12 facility for electromagnetic separation and S-50 thermal diffusion (which didn't last long) to use different ways to produce Uranium 235 from the much more abundant uranium 238.

After the war, many of the scientists who had toiled to build the first atomic bomb stayed in Oak Ridge to pursue peaceful uses of the atom and to use other research breakthroughs to foster better medicine, materials and manufacturing, among other innovations.

The heritage of Oak Ridge makes it different from other research facilities, Zacharia said.

"Most laboratories start out as research facilities," he said. "We started as a project and we began a lab only after the war and after fulfilling that project goal. There is in our DNA and culture a deep-seeded desire to have an impact. We take ideas all the way to missional impact and societal change. That's who we are and what we do."

The nuclear bomb, atomic energy, nuclear isotopes, nuclear medicine and the nuclear navy all grew out of Oak Ridge innovation. To support its nuclear research, Oak Ridge also has been a leader in materials, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing processes. ORNL is also the home of the world's fastest computer and, to keep pace with the rapid rise it IT technology, is already building the next computer that will be far faster and smarter to ensure the U.S. keeps its computational lead in the world.

"We work to translate the ideas of our scientists into solutions so that the United States remains the leader in science, technology and innovation, especially in energy and national security," Zacharia said.

"Where in Tennessee do you want this, Mr. President?"

The rural east Tennessee site of Oak Ridge may seem an unlikely site for Nobel-prize-winning research. But its rural character, rolling terrain and presence in the state of a powerful U.S. senator in the 1940s helped create and shape the self-described Atomic City.

When President Franklin Roosevelt was trying to stay ahead of Nazi Germany in developing the first atomic bomb, he wanted to be able to fund the then secret Manhattan project within the federal budget without public knowledge of the atomic research program. Tennessee Sen. Kenneth McKellar, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time, reportedly told Roosevelt that he could make that happen and asked the president where in his home state of Tennessee was this project going to be built.

Within the Oak Ridge Valley in East Tennessee, hidden beyond surrounding hills in rural Anderson and Roane counties, the 35,000-acre Oak Ridge campus took shape and helped usher the world into the nuclear age.

Training tomorrow's scientists

For all of its storied past, University of Tennessee's interim president Randy Boyd sees the Oak Ridge lab as "transformational for our future" and he urged Tennesseans to look to the future, not the past, of what Oak Ridge might accomplish. UT-Battelle, a partnership of the University of Tennessee and Battele Memorial Institute, has managed the Oak Ridge lab for the U.S. Department of Energy since 2000.

"There are some national security and research interests that the combination of UT and Oak Ridge are uniquely positioned to solve," he said.

Boyd said UT can help train the scientists to make ORNL's ongoing research programs adequately staffed. ORNL already provides graduate training and research programs for about 200 UT doctoral students.

"We have a critical shortage now and it's getting worse and it's up to universities, in partnerships with the labs, in order to solve that and we're working to do that," Boyd said.

The Oak Ridge-Chattanooga ties

Former EPB chairman Joe Ferguson, who has worked with the lab for decades and helped push for ORNL to do more work with EPB and other Chattanooga projects, said "we've only begun to scratch the surface" for how Oak Ridge research can aid local new technologies and business. At EPB, Oak Ridge researchers are figuring ways to analyze the millions of pieces of information made possible by Chattanooga's smart grid to figure out the best ways to produce, dispatch and conserve energy and to identify ways to make a more reliant electrics; network.

From his initial trip to Oak Ridge, Fleischmann said he has tried to help more Chattanoogans realize the opportunities and advantages of having Oak Ridge just 95 miles up the road. The Chattanooga congressman capitalized on ORNL's research at EPB to help convince the lab to open one of its first offices outside of Oak Ridge in Chattanooga and Fleischmann is eager for ORNL's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility to aid more local businesses to improve their processes and products through a variety of research programs.

Zacharia said turning scientific research into practical societal gains is at the core of Oak Ridge's purpose.

"Our mission as a laboratory is to be the most respected and preeminent research lab in the world," Zacharia said. "Nothing less is satisfactory for an institution that has changed the world as much as we have as many times as we have and for the talented people we have."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.

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