Tennessee Lab Puts Emphasis on National-Security Technologies in Wake of 9/11

Sep. 11--OAK RIDGE -- Oak Ridge history is about serving the nation in time of need, starting with World War II and the development of the first atomic bombs.

The response after 9/11 was more of the same, as the federal facilities altered their missions to address concerns about homeland security.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory now spends about $300 million a year -- roughly a third of its budget -- on programs related to national security, with much of the effort on nuclear nonproliferation.

Nuclear specialists from the lab have traveled the globe in recent years to help rescue vulnerable inventories of enriched uranium that, if diverted, could be used by terrorists to make an atomic bomb.

Frank Akers, a retired Army brigadier general who directs the national security work, said ORNL's research agenda really hasn't changed that much since Sept. 11, 2001. It's just grown.

"We were already working on the broad spectrum of national-security technologies," Akers said. "The fact of the matter is, we now have more emphasis."

A priority has been development of better detection systems for radiological materials, explosives, chemical and biological agents, and other items of concern, he said.

ORNL also initiated SensorNet, a detection-and-communications network that, in the event of a terrorist attack, gets early threat assessments in the hands of first responders. Several variations have been installed and tested, including one at Fort Bragg, an Army base in North Carolina.

Another specialty is "knowledge management and knowledge discovery." The lab has developed computer software that exploits information that's accessible to security analysts but hasn't been put into a useful context.

The Oak Ridge lab is a national leader in some research areas, but it also collaborates with other institutions, including the nearby Y-12 National Security Complex, Akers said. "We are cooperating in great fashion with Y-12," he said, including a program that shares "best practices" with law-enforcement agencies in the Southeast.

Y-12's primary mission involves manufacturing and recycling of nuclear warhead parts and storage of nuclear materials, but the plant has applied its expertise to homeland-security projects.

Bridget Correll, a marketing manager, said Y-12 personnel have performed "vulnerability assessments" for schools and nuclear power plants -- helping identify potential flaws or weaknesses in their security plans.

The weapons plant also has shared cyber-security expertise with the Department of Homeland Security and various law-enforcement groups, Correll said.

Earlier this year, BWXT, the managing contractor at Y-12, signed a memorandum of understanding with TVA. The partnership will allow security experts to use TVA facilities as a test-bed for new technologies or possibly as a stage for certain security exercises.

Y-12 was built during World War II for work on the first atomic bombs, and security has been a huge priority from the beginning.

"We've been doing this for over 60 years," Correll said. "We're trying to take everything we've learned over 60 years and make it available to DHS and other agencies."

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education manages a scholarship and fellows program for the Department of Homeland Security. About 100 students receive awards each year as part of the program, now in its fourth year. It is designed to ensure that the United States develops the technical skills and expertise that will be needed in the future.

ORISE, which is managed by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, includes a number of specialty units that could prove critical in case of a radiological disaster.

The Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site, or REACTS, is a world leader in responding to radiation accidents and has training many of the nation's physicians and hospital personnel in how to deal with severe radiation exposures.

The Oak Ridge institute also recently reopened its Cytogenetics Biodosimetry Laboratory, which analyzes blood samples to determine how much radiation has been absorbed in the body. In the case of a "dirty bomb" and broad population exposure, the lab could prove important to medical response and crisis management.

ORISE personnel train Customs agents in detection of radiological materials at U.S. borders and ports. The institute also refurbishes older nuclear-detection equipment for reuse in communities around the country.

Ron Townsend, director of the institute and president of Oak Ridge Associated Universities, said ORAU traditionally performed critical missions for DOE, but that role has broadened.

"Since Sept. 11, Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control, Customs, the Bureau of Reclamation -- even the state of California -- have called upon ORAU's expertise to meet their expanding needs for emergency preparedness, science education and research," Townsend said.