Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy
Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Celebrating 40 Years of Science & Discovery

From swords to ploughshares

PNNL draws upon its Manhattan Project and Cold War origins to evolve into a modern multi-program research organization that solves problems worldwide.

At one point in the history of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, "safe" meant developing nuclear weapons. Today, safe means reducing the threat of nuclear weapons and guaranteeing scientific advances in fundamental science that help ensure new and efficient energy sources, a clean environment and human health.

The origin of PNNL—a Department of Energy multi-program research and development facility—can be traced to the establishment of the Hanford site in southeastern Washington in the 1940s. Hanford's earliest laboratories supported the production of nuclear materials for national defense purposes as part of the Manhattan Project. Its B Reactor was the world's first plutonium production reactor.

By the end of World War II, the plutonium effort at Hanford had already spawned a plethora of research dealing with the effects of nuclear radiation. Much of PNNL's early work in the 1960s addressed issues related to radionuclides, particularly developing radiation detection technologies, evaluating biological effects and understanding the fate and transport of radionuclides in the environment. Fate and transport analysis shows how contaminants move and change in the environment.

As a result of Hanford's influence, PNNL developed a foundation in radiation detection and environmental fate and transport that now serves as the base for its expertise in national security, fundamental science and environmental research.

Ray Wildung, a researcher at PNNL since 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 said. "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 groundwater. Radioecology—the behavior and effects of radionuclides in aquatic and terrestrial environments—was another important focus.

"There was a major transformation when Battelle took over in 1965," Wildung said. Battelle negotiated a use permit with the Atomic Energy Commission that allowed PNNL to use AEC and Battelle facilities for research with other agencies and with private companies. One of the first projects Wildung led was a study for the U. S. Department of Agriculture on the behavior of pesticides in the environment. This was followed by projects on phosphorus behavior for the predecessor of the Environmental Protection Agency and on the role of microbial processes in controlling metal behavior for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

"Each of these projects evolved into long-term basic research programs that developed interactively with our DOE programs to form the basis for our current expertise in biogeochemistry," Wildung said. "These efforts could not have been undertaken without the PNNL use permit and the facilities and expertise initially developed to understand the fate and transport of radionuclides."

In the 1970s, the federal government sponsored a major study focusing on how plutonium fallout from nuclear weapons testing and loss of satellites was affecting the environment. 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 biogeochemistry. Biogeochemistry is the study of phenomena at the interface of biology and geochemistry that are now known to drive some of the most important processes on earth. Concurrently, work was under way on radiation detection systems that would form the basis for key parts of PNNL's current homeland security work.

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

In 2001, an 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 developing these radiation detection systems, the Laboratory also was developing its national security resume. The detection systems were used in atmospheric studies to detect radionuclides from weapons tests as far away as Russia and China. PNNL's radiation detection system was later used by two groups of U.S. scientists, each of which won the Nobel Peace Prize in physics for its 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 for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Today, PNNL scientists are leveraging this 40-year history of nuclear science and capability to address the emerging needs of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Currently, the Laboratory is coordinating the Radiation Portal Monitor Project for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of DHS. The project is aimed at preventing terrorists from transporting nuclear or radioactive materials into the United States by installing radiation detection technology at international ports of entry to screen all vehicles and cargo entering the country.

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 various technologies for preventing proliferation," said Gordon Dudder, who manages PNNL's nuclear nonproliferation research and engineering program. These technologies include materials such as lightweight glass optical fibers that react to radiation by emitting light. 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.

As PNNL transitioned from projects related to Hanford's plutonium production mission to the Laboratory's new life, it was held up as an example to the Russians. "We bring Russians here through the Nuclear Cities Initiative to show them there is life after the weapons production mission ends. They see first-hand the contrast between old production facilities and the new modern research campus," Dudder said.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Wildung headed the Environmental Science Research Center (ESRC) at PNNL, a research program directed toward restoring contaminated environments at DOE sites nationwide. The focus was on understanding the interactions of subsurface biological, chemical and physical processes controlling environmental fate and transport of contaminants. Expertise in this area helped in securing the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (1994), a state-of-the-art DOE user facility on the PNNL campus.

Deep subsurface exploration for microorganisms and investigations of how microbial processes could be used in transforming contaminants was a pioneering component of the ESRC that set the stage for current PNNL research on microorganisms. For example, in the 1970s, PNNL was the first to show that technetium was an important contaminant that would move quickly through the environment and be biologically available. Technetium is now recognized as a principal risk driver—one of the radionuclides that will pose the greatest potential risk when it escapes into the subsurface environment.

Scientists have been able to identify a group of organisms capable of immobilizing technetium and other contaminants such as chromium, and work is now under way to determine how to effectively use the organisms in treating contaminated groundwaters. Deep subsurface organisms that have potential for use in new energy and industrial processes and even in the pharmaceutical industry have also been isolated.

Studies of deep subsurface ecosystems that evolved from PNNL's research to define and remediate subsurface contaminant transport contributed to the foundation for PNNL's groundbreaking research on chemical/microbial processes that may be responsible for the first life on earth.

Breakthroughs Magazine

In this issue...