SINCE World War II, vast technical advances have sprung from the
blackboards and workbenches of the national laboratories owned by
the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Military and civilian
research programs at the score of labs around the country have
developed the nation's nuclear arsenal and delved into the secrets
of matter's fundamental building blocks.
"They are essential to many areas of endeavor in the United
States," says Edward Frieman, chairman of a DOE task force currently
studying the labs. "If they were wiped out by the stroke of a pen,"
he says, the United States couldn't get along without them.
No one's threatening to wipe out the labs, but their role is
being reexamined by Frieman's group at the request of Energy
Secretary James Watkins.
"You can't run this whole complex as if the world hasn't changed.
It has changed," Dr. Frieman says. The cold war is over. And
there's a new national emphasis on energy supply, the environment,
education, and national competitiveness, he says.
"The question is, what do we have to do about it?" asks Frieman,
who is the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La
Jolla, Calif., and a former director of energy research at DOE. The
task force will make recommendations next fall to Admiral Watkins on
a strategic vision to guide the labs and preserve their value as a
national technical resource.
The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) illustrates the value of the
labs. Five years of tests remain, but at this point officials at
the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., are confident of
fulfilling nuclear energy's discredited early promise of clean,
cheap, safe, inexhaustible power.
As if that weren't enough, the IFR could even burn all the
long-lived waste accumulating at the current generation of reactors,
simplifying the nation's storage dilemma. A very small amount of IFR
waste can't be reprocessed into fuel, but its radioactivity lasts
only 200 years, not millions.
"Here at the national laboratory, you have the various
disciplines, the chemists, the physicists, the mechanical engineers,
the electrical engineers, etc., that you can bring together, as we
have done, to develop a whole new reactor technology," says Charles
Till, who directs the IFR program at Argonne. "No where else can you
As the flagship of DOE's advanced reactor program, the IFR is
important, yet it represents only $100 million out of the $6 billion
in research under way at the national labs.
Already the labs are increasing their involvement in education, a
necessary precursor to research, and in transferring technology to
industry, a natural follow-up activity. There are serious challenges
in both areas.
"Our scientists are all maturing, and we need to start to
replace them. We've noticed in fact that a lot of them are dying
their hair white for some reason," jokes Sam Bowen, of Argonne's
division of educational programs.
"A lot of kids are ... finding science to be something that's
really painful and boring. And they don't want to do it," he adds.
"That means we're going to be suffering from a lack of supply of
A national shortfall of 675,000 scientists and engineers by the
year 2006 is foreseen. The cause is the declining proportion of
white males, who traditionally have pursued science careers. …