Special Reports

Cold War leads to cool science: PNNL draws upon Cold War heritage to become modern research organization

While Pacific Northwest National Laboratory wasn't established as an independent entity until 1965 when the federal government's research laboratory at the Hanford site was separated from Hanford operations, PNNL can trace its heritage back to the 1940s and the nuclear site's earliest days.

Hanford's 1940s research laboratories supported the production of nuclear materials for national defense purposes as part of the Manhattan Project. In the early years of the Cold War, Hanford's laboratories expanded their focus so by the early 1960s researchers were developing radiation detection technologies, evaluating biological effects of radiation, and working to understand how contaminants move and change in the environment.

Today, those Hanford roots can seem like ancient history to some. PNNL is now a cornerstone in the nation's national laboratory system - a confederation of research facilities that serve as a sort of the "Ivy League" of mission-defined scientific research and innovation in this country. PNNL does nearly $1 billion in research annually - less than 10 percent of it for the Hanford site. And funding clients include several Department of Energy offices, other government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health, the National Nuclear Security Administration and private industry.

PNNL researchers are recognized worldwide for making fundamental discoveries in the biological, chemical, materials, molecular, atmospheric and computational sciences. They are working on some of the nation's most critical challenges and are on the front-lines of major issues, from enhancing the power grid and developing clean energy, to predicting climate change and its impacts. They are securing America's borders against terrorism and informing the nation about North Korea's nuclear capabilities and intentions. The laboratory is collaborating with researchers and institutions from China to Uzbekistan, and Russia to Malaysia to address mutual energy, environmental and security challenges. Hundreds of its innovations have been commercialized and are in use around the world.

And PNNL is home to DOE's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a national scientific "user facility" that addresses complex environmental and other scientific challenges and has served scientific users from academia, industry and other national laboratories representing all 50 states and nearly 30 countries since it opened in 1997.

PNNL's Hanford roots

Those who live in the Tri-Cities know PNNL has its moorings in Hanford.

Today's research into how the nation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing carbon dioxide from sources such as fossil fuel power plants and storing it in geological formations can be traced back to PNNL's early work understanding the fate and subsurface transport of contaminants in the environment, developed in support of cleanup activities at Hanford and other DOE sites.

And the laboratory's historical efforts to protect nuclear workers and measure low levels of radioactivity in the environment is the foundation for recently developed technologies and methods designed to detect the nuclear capabilities and intentions of other nations.

Ray Wildung, who started his PNNL research career in 1967, devoted most of his career to studying the fate and transport of radionuclides and metals.

"One of the primary concerns of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (DOE's predecessor) was the environment," Wildung recalled. "We were trying to identify the fundamental mechanisms and pathways that control the behavior and form of contaminants in the environment and the subsequent risk to people."

"Fate and transport" efforts at Hanford from the '40s to the early '60s focused mainly on how radionuclides, such as strontium, cesium and iodine, were transported in the soil and ground water. Radioecology - the behavior and effects of radionuclides in aquatic and terrestrial environments - was another important focus.

One of the first projects Wildung led when he joined the newly christened "Pacific Northwest Laboratory" (as it was called at the time) was a study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the behavior of pesticides in the environment. This effort was followed by projects on phosphorus behavior for the predecessor of the Environmental Protection Agency and on the role of tiny microbes in controlling metal behavior for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Years later, PNNL's John Zachara and Jim Fredrickson extended these studies, achieving important breakthroughs in understanding subsurface contaminants. These have led to new investigations to utilize microbes and microbial systems for use in bioenergy, and in evaluating their role in carbon cycling, global climate change, and capture and storage of greenhouse gases.

"These efforts could not have been undertaken without the facilities and expertise initially developed to understand the fate and transport of radionuclides at Hanford," Wildung said.

Halting the spread of nuclear weapons

In the 1970s, the federal government sponsored a major study focusing on how plutonium fallout from nuclear weapons testing and expired satellites was affecting the environment. In support of the federal initiative, PNNL embarked on a program to understand the fate of plutonium in the environment that led to national and international recognition for PNNL staff and establishment of PNNL as a major player in plutonium biogeochemistry.

Concurrently, work was under way on radiation detection systems that ultimately would form the basis for a portion of PNNL's 21st century homeland security work as well as later efforts to support nonproliferation treaty verification technologies.

"We developed the world's most sensitive radiation detection system," said Ned Wogman, a scientist who directed PNNL's Homeland Security program. "Our radionuclide methods could make exceedingly low-level measurements. That's why NASA asked us to analyze lunar rocks."

The work paid off later in ways unimagined in the 1960s and '70s. In 2001, a radiation detection instrument developed in part by PNNL accompanied NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft to Mars. The device measured radiation from cosmic rays thrown off by the sun and stars. Another device, used in Russia's Mir space station to record cosmic ray energy and resulting tissue damage to human cells, is now standard equipment on space shuttle missions.

In the process of creating these radiation detection systems, the laboratory was also developing its national security resume. The detection systems were ultimately used in atmospheric studies to detect radionuclides from weapons tests from as far away as Russia and China. PNNL's radiation detection knowledge was later used by two groups of U.S. scientists, each of which won the Nobel Peace Prize in physics for their work with neutrinos.

PNNL's work in radiation detection, coupled with its environmental fate and transport expertise, led to the laboratory's work in nuclear explosion monitoring under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

PNNL further developed its radiation expertise by studying the interaction between cosmic rays and the components of the earth's atmosphere - oxygen, nitrogen and argon.

"Because we had the radiation detection equipment, we were able to study cloud dynamics and radiation physics," Wogman said.

In addition to atmospheric studies, PNNL transferred this expertise to ocean measurements.

"From a national security perspective, knowing the proliferation pathway has allowed us to develop technologies for preventing proliferation," said Gordon Dudder, who manages PNNL's National Nuclear Security Administration programs.

"These technologies include advanced radiation detection materials and devices such as the Gamma Tracker, a hand-held, battery-powered radionuclide detection system intended for use by inspectors with minimal training."

In addition, PNNL scientists have developed an infrared spectral data library that contains the unique signatures of more than 300 chemicals that have legitimate uses in industry, but also could be used to make weapons.

PNNL's Hanford roots have led the lab far beyond the nuclear site, but the laboratory is still making a significant impact at Hanford. As part of the effort to accelerate and permanently clean up the Hanford site, PNNL performed nearly $70 million of work at Hanford in 2009. PNNL research provided a better understanding of how to successfully treat radioactive wastes stored in the site's enormous holding tanks, helped determine the fate and transport of contaminants in the subsurface and develop advanced remediation approaches for soils and ground water.

PNNL will continue to draw upon its Hanford heritage. Next year, laboratory staff will move into the new 200,000-square-foot Physical Sciences Facility on the north end of the PNNL campus.

Research conducted in the PSF will lead to advances in radiation detection methods needed to identify and halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist activities. And the opening of the new Biological Sciences Facility this fall means PNNL scientists and engineers will continue looking for methods that will prevent contaminants from moving through ground water, as well as ways to improve our understanding of how low-dose radiation and other factors affect human health.