Oak Ridge National Laboratory director talks AI, nuclear and China – Knoxville News Sentinel

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Among the most imposing scientific leadership roles in the U.S. is director of a national laboratory.

The most famous person ever to hold the job was J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose directorship of Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project got star treatment in Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning film “Oppenheimer.”

Today, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is not quite as sprawling as its fellow World War II site Los Alamos, which continues work on national security.

ORNL, however, is the Department of Energy’s largest science and technology lab, with over 6,500 employees and a budget of about $2.5 billion. It calls itself “the world’s premier research institution.”

Its director must wear many hats to coordinate science across fields and at the highest level.

Stephen Streiffer, who took on the role late last year, leads the lab at a time when breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, clean energy and manufacturing are transforming daily life for many Americans. ORNL’s mission is to produce cutting-edge research that secures the stature of the U.S. as a scientific leader.

Streiffer familiarized himself with the lab’s diverse collection of one-of-a-kind tools, including the world’s fastest supercomputer, a world-record particle accelerator and a nuclear reactor that creates rare radioactive materials used to start up nuclear power plants and fuel NASA rockets. He also learned the names and stories of many of the thousands of people who make the lab run.

Streiffer was appointed in July by UT-Battelle, a partnership of the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute, which operates the lab for the DOE’s Office of Science. He became director on Oct. 16.

Streiffer and ORNL are not so distantly connected to Oppenheimer and the creation of the first nuclear weapon. Known by code name “X-10” during World War II, ORNL was home to the Graphite Reactor, the world’s first continuously operating nuclear reactor that proved uranium could be transformed into plutonium.

Plutonium production for the second bomb was done in large reactors at the Hanford Site in eastern Washington, and the X-10 site did not enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb like other Oak Ridge sites K-25, S-50 and Y-12.

Still, ORNL’s history is intimately tied to the Manhattan Project and the birth of the nuclear age. Across its history, the lab has built and operated 13 nuclear research reactors to power discoveries in industries like commercial nuclear power and medical isotopes.

Before leading ORNL, Streiffer was interim director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, an Office of Science facility operated by Stanford University. He worked for 24 years at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, where he ended his tenure as deputy director for science and technology. He also co-directed the DOE’s consortium to find urgent solutions during the pandemic.

Streiffer holds a doctorate in materials science and engineering from Stanford and a bachelor’s in materials science from Rice University. The diversity of work that happens at ORNL, from nuclear fusion to 3D printing to plant genetics and artificial intelligence, was unlike anything he has experienced before.

Knox News spoke with Streiffer to hear about his first five months as ORNL director and where he sees the lab leading on pressing issues like AI and clean energy, as well as how he reckons with the lab’s origins.

The following conversation with Streiffer has been edited for length and clarity.

ORNL director: ‘This is their lab. I work for them’

Knox News: What has surprised you about the role of ORNL director and what do you love about your job?

Streiffer: I love coming into work every day. What’s really gratifying to me is just seeing the breadth of the work that we do here. I just had an opportunity today to walk around with some of our nuclear fuels folks, and what they’re doing is just mind-blowing. One has this sense of how diverse the portfolio is at ORNL from the outside, but you really don’t know it until you live it.

One thing that will surprise no one who lives in this area, but does surprise people who come from the outside: This is a really great place to live. I mean, it’s just absolutely beautiful here. I think that’s one of the reasons that Knoxville and the surrounding areas have been growing so quickly is because that secret’s getting out.

Knox News: What would you describe as some of your top priorities for your directorship? Do you get the sense they differ from those of your immediate predecessors?

Streiffer: No, I think the lab has been on a great trajectory. This includes the work that we’ve done in computing, the work that we’ve done in materials, the work that we’ve done in biological and environmental system science. We have new opportunities, for instance, in fusion, where we can take our expertise in materials and apply that to new problems. So for me, the biggest opportunities are ones where ORNL really has unique strengths and combines them to do things that other people, other laboratories and other institutions, just really aren’t able to.

Knox News: How insulated is ORNL from changes in funding that might come after this year’s presidential election? Could there be a sort of funding whiplash?

Streiffer: I’m actually not very worried about that and there are a couple of reasons. One is that if you look at the large amount of money that has gone into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, a lot of it is really demonstration and deployment money that’s gone to industry, and that’s a good thing. The laboratory system has been a relatively modest player in that space.

The portfolio of the lab is also very diverse, so we benefit from the fact that different administrations will have a different set of priorities. Regardless of the priority, I almost guarantee that ORNL is doing something in the priority area. ORNL has actually grown substantially, and I think we really need to focus on impact, not growth. We’re actually in a lot of ways really maxed out on what we can do with our physical facilities right now.

Knox News: It sounds like you’re saying ORNL doesn’t need to be building more buildings, it doesn’t need to be increasing its staff all that much, because you’re at max capacity. Is that correct?

Streiffer: I would soften it a little bit. We have the luxury of actually looking at the things where we can have the most impact rather than just taking whatever work comes our way. The Department of Energy is invested heavily in us and the laboratory has done a great job of renewing its facilities over the last several years.

Knox News: People have a tendency to talk about ORNL like it’s this huge brain or a factory of ideas, and not a major workplace that thousands of people come to each day. What are some of your priorities on the workforce side of things, making ORNL a good place to come to work every day?

Streiffer: One of the questions I got asked early on is, “What’s more important to you, the mission of ORNL or the people of ORNL?” My answer is, you don’t do the mission without the people. The staff of the laboratory are the ones that generate the ideas that are the creativity of the lab. This is their lab. I work for them. My job is to make them successful.

Stephen Streiffer, the new director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is leading the lab through a wave of major scientific advancements.

We need to continue to modernize the campus so that people have a nice work environment. It’s really easy to find out that you have a lot of very complicated administrative processes that you’ve inflicted on yourself, rather than actually trying to respond to something that’s being passed down to us by the Department of Energy. Trying to be creative about the way that we operate the lab to make it as easy and as fun to work here as possible is one of my real missions.

Knox News: How is the lab planning to balance developing AI technology at a rapid pace, while also making sure that’s being done safely, and in a way that doesn’t threaten human intelligence?

Streiffer: I think foundational to being able to advance the science of AI, is just trying to establish what it means to have a truthful AI. It’s not a balance of moving AI forward while also trying to make AI trustworthy, we have to do them together. They have to be knitted together exactly in the way that we talk about in the national lab system of integrated safety management. You don’t do your work and layer safety onto that, safety is actually part of the way that you do the work. And we’ve got to do the same thing for trustworthy AI. Otherwise, the whole field falls apart.

Knox News: The lab celebrated 80 years last year, and there are a lot of other Manhattan Project anniversaries coming up. It’s somewhat of a complicated legacy, the creation of the atomic bomb. How do you think about that Manhattan Project origin?

Streiffer: Science and technology is always a double-edged sword. We always have to be stepping back and asking not only could we do something, but should we do something? Particularly as one of the labs that was so deeply involved in the Manhattan Project, I think we get that better than a lot of people. We’ve lived that in probably the most extreme way possible.

But we can’t let that paralyze us either. We’re always going to be revising the way that we think and the model based on the best information that we can get an any point in time. I think that’s one of the legacies of the Manhattan Project and it’s got to be part of the DNA of ORNL.

Knox News: On the question of nuclear power, it’s hard to find a place that’s more pro-nuclear than Oak Ridge. There’s been a lot of difficulties in the past, though, getting advanced nuclear projects off the ground. What’s different about nuclear right now and how can ORNL keep these projects from stalling?

Streiffer: I think the problems that are facing Tennessee, the nation and the world right now are a set of interlinking problems around sustainability and clean energy. That gives us a really unique moment in history where a lot of forces are coming together to say that we have to do this now.

One of the challenges has always been that deploying a new technology is expensive. What we can do as ORNL is help reduce the risk, take the expertise and the knowledge here, work with TVA and the nuclear power industry, and try to figure out how we actually make it happen this time, in a way that’s ultimately affordable for the people who have to pay for it – the taxpayers and the rate payers.

Knox News: Type One Energy recently announced they intend to come to Anderson County for their fusion research prototype at an old TVA coal plant. What did you make of that announcement?

Streiffer: I think it’s just amazing. I’d love to see more of that. I think the fact that TVA and Type One could come to this agreement on the use of the property that TVA was retiring is just fabulous. One of the reasons that they’re doing it is the expertise just around the corner at the laboratory. The fact that Type One is looking at this as the place to do that R&D I think speaks volumes about just the nuclear ecosystem and the science and technology ecosystem that we have here in East Tennessee.

Knox News: You co-directed the National Virtual Biotechnology Lab during COVID. Are there issues facing the U.S. today that you feel are similarly urgent?

Streiffer: What you might refer to as the climate change problem or the sustainability problem or the clean energy problem, these are every bit as urgent as the threat that was posed by COVID. Water security is a huge issue right now around the world. Climate change is leading to what we believe are an increasing number of severe weather events. Unless we realize the urgency of these problems, exactly as we did with COVID, humanity is going to be in a very bad place. I think that combined set of things really have to do with burning fossil fuels. It’s not a 50-year problem. This is a now problem.

Knox News: The lab’s technology transfer office looks at innovations in the lab and actually turns them into patents for private tech companies. What role do those partnerships play?

Streiffer: I think it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to make a difference in the long term. Eventually, you need to get things into the hands of the private sector, so they can actually deliver as an economic activity. I think we have some great examples at ORNL, like the work that we do in the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, where we’re bringing in a few hundred companies each year to work on projects with us.

We’d love to have work that’s not only supporting companies, but is actually creating IP, and the national labs are not as good as the universities at that. I think that’s something we have to figure out.

Knox News: Part of being a DOE facility is that you’re doing science in the national interest. Does ORNL see itself as competing scientifically with other nations and with other governments?

Streiffer: What’s the term, is it “coopetition”? It’s a little bit of both. Most of the money that we have here at the laboratory is taxpayer dollars. We have an obligation to both help people understand what we do, but also return value to the taxpayers. We do want to make sure that we are maintaining and enhancing the place in the world of the United States, and that includes its economic competitiveness. It includes our national security as well.

But at the same time, if we’re going to do that, we have to cooperate with the world in a way which recognizes the realities that we find ourselves in.

The landscape with China is very complicated right now and that precludes certain collaborations we’d like to have with China. But we have to understand that many of the scientific and technical problems that we’re working on are not just national in scale, they’re international, and therefore international engagement is important.

In a lot of cases, we’re trying to develop technologies with our partners around the world that really is for the betterment of humanity. But at the same time, we want the U.S. to win.

Daniel Dassow is a growth and development reporter focused on technology and energy. Phone 423-637-0878. Email [email protected].

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