Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff were recognized Thursday by Energy Secretary Steven Chu for helping keep the nation and the world safe.
They were called upon when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico, when an earthquake and tsunami caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster and when tons of used nuclear fuel in the former Soviet Union were at risk of falling into the wrong hands.
"The employees recognized today have gone above and beyond the call of duty, demonstrating an exceptional commitment to public service," Chu said in a statement after presenting Honor Awards in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Employees at the Department of Energy national laboratory in Richland working on larger national teams received the awards, the highest level of nonmonetary recognition given to DOE federal and contractor employees.
Never miss a local story.
Yasuo Onishi, a PNNL chief scientist, was sent to Japan shortly after the Fukushima disaster this spring when the Japanese prime minister requested help.
He grew up in Japan, so he speaks the language, and he also has environmental cleanup experience after serving as the U.S. government environmental coordinator for water and soil after the Chernobyl disaster.
He arrived in Japan to find officials who had hardly slept meeting for 14- and 15-hour days, seven days a week.
"It was a crisis environment," he said. "They were really working hard to not get worse conditions."
He joined the meetings with Japanese government and power officials, providing his expertise to Japan, relaying questions back to a U.S. team that included other PNNL experts and providing the U.S. with information on what was happening in Japan.
He has continued to return to Japan for weeks at a time at the request of the Japanese government, focusing on cleanup of radioactively contaminated areas so people can return to their homes.
Jim Buelt, nuclear energy sector manager at PNNL, was among the lab staff who responded to the nuclear disaster in the United States, leaving Richland to work with a crisis response team in Washington, D.C., within a week of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
The team took on tasks that included analyzing different cooling options for the reactors and the irradiated fuel and studying how to abate the effects of corrosion from sea water that was used for cooling. The team looked at what to do with the large quantities of contaminated water and assembled data on what the fuel may have been exposed to, Buelt said.
Additional staff at PNNL remained in Richland, helping with technical analyses and providing requested information, he said.
"The response teams' extraordinary efforts under immense pressure provided real time information to those at the highest levels of the U.S. government who were making decisions that would impact the health and safety of U.S. citizens in Japan, as well as to the government of Japan," DOE said in a statement.
As oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in spring 2010, researchers from PNNL and other national laboratories were asked to help estimate how much oil was gushing from an underwater well head.
When Phillip Gauglitz, PNNL project manager, and others began working on the project a month after the Deepwater Horizon spill, the U.S. government still knew little about the spill or the flow rate of the escaping oil, he said. Most information was coming from BP, operator of the oil prospect, and the U.S. government wanted to develop information that it was confident was accurate.
The PNNL team worked as part of a larger team doing calculations of the oil flow rate based on the oil reservoir and the drill pipe and well coming up from the reservoir, despite having little information about the underwater damage.
Within a week an estimate had been developed and that had been refined by "crisis mode" work in two months to come up with the government's best estimate.
"It was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, environmental events in the nation, so understanding it is important," Gauglitz said.
At the end of the Cold war, Kazakhstan was left with used nuclear fuel from a fast breeder reactor shut down in the late '80s near the Caspian Sea, which borders the Middle East.
Michael Macourek, project integration manager at PNNL, took the lead on PNNL contracts to manage much of the work to get the fuel out of pools and move it across difficult terrain about 1,850 miles, far away from the Caspian Sea.
The fuel included 11 tons of highly enriched uranium and 3.3 tons of weapon-grade plutonium.
"It was just sitting there with no security and physical protection," said Jeff Andrie, PNNL lead project controls engineer.
The project was the largest spent fuel shipment in the history of the National Nuclear Security Administration, accomplished despite starting with limited or unusable infrastructure and equipment.
Casks had to be designed and built to hold the fuel canisters, and train cars had to be designed and built to carry the casks, flanked by guard cars. The equipment and systems to load and unload the trains needed created and a long term storage facility had to be built.
In addition the rail line across the country had to be refurbished, along with a road to haul it from the railroad to the storage facility.
Work that PNNL and other national laboratories started in 1998 was finished in 2010, but Macourek did not live to see the completion of the project. He died earlier in 2010 and was honored Thursday posthumously.
His and others' efforts on the project led to the safe and secure storage of enough material for 775 nuclear weapons, significantly strengthening national and global security, DOE said in a statement.
AWARD WINNERS LISTED
PNNL staff receiving the Honor Award for the Fukushima disaster include Yasuo Onishi and Jim Buelt. In addition Paul Higgins, international technology assessments program manager, was presented with a separate Certificate of Extraordinary Service for his superior support to the federal government. Additional PNNL staff who contributed to technical analysis activities during the crisis included: Bruce Reid, Burt Johnson, Ted Bowyer, Jeff Miller, Reid Peterson, Tom Michener, Wayne Johnson, Gary Sevigny, Ron Omberg, Diana Love, Loni Peurrung, Don Draper, Garrett Brown, Bruce Napier, Dawn Wellman, Jon Schwantes, Andy Prichard, Judah Friese, Jim Hayes, Larry Greenwood, Harry Miley and Carl Pitts.
PNNL staff recognized with the Honor Award as part of the Flow Rate Technical Group for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill included: Phil Gauglitz, Lenna Mahoney, James Fort, Judith Bamberger, Jeremy Blanchard, Jagan Bontha, Carl Enderlin, Yasuo Onishi, David Pfund, David Rector, Mark Stewart, Beric Wells, Thomas Yokuda and former employee Perry Meyer. Additional staff supporting the effort were Bill Dey, Bill Kuhn, Chrissy Charron and Dana Ruane.
Michael Macourek was presented the Honor Award posthumously for disposing of the fuel from the Aktau reactor in Kazakhstan. Jeff Andrie, lead project controls engineer, and Pete Pelto, retired PNNL senior equipment designer, also were primary contributors.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org