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ORNL chief packs Chamber breakfast

Announcing that Oak Ridge National Laboratory is building “the world’s most powerful open computer,” Dr. Jeffrey Wadsworth, ORNL director, said Knox County should expect a population blitz of future ORNL employees within the next couple of years.

Guest speaker at the Farragut West Knox Chamber of Commerce’s first Breakfast Speaker Series of 2006 Tuesday, Jan. 10, at Fox Den Country Club, the director said 2,000 extra people will be hired by ORNL when a new $1.4 billion neutron scattering facility becomes fully operational by April 2008.

“We have to think about how we’re going to colonize them [in terms of] schools, housing,” Wadsworth said, adding on a lighter note that many of those 2,000, “I’m sure, will be shopping at Fresh Market, as do I.”

With 4,100 current employees at ORNL, “Over the next few years we’re going to lead the world in neutron sciences — we’re not going to be as good as the world, we’re not going to be world-class, we’re going to lead the world,” Wadsworth said. “If you’re going to be doing neutron sciences, you’re going to be going to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That’s the objective.”

Saying various international competitors have come to Oak Ridge, Wadsworth said upon leaving “they throw up their arms and say, ‘we’re done, we can’t compete with you.’ I like meetings like that.”

The neutron scattering facility — labeled “the world’s most powerful neutron source” by Wadsworth — already includes an additional $600 million upgrade, “and we haven’t even turned it on yet.”

Wadsworth breaks down the three central areas of ORNL concentrations into nanosciences, “the study of materials at the atomic level,” biology and computing.

“The issue with computing is whether you can predict; if you can predict, you can control,” Wadsworth said. “So if you know what the weather’s going to be like in the southern part of southeast Tennessee, you can, for example, help agricultural decisions. … There’s a huge interest in the combination of nanoscience, biology and computing.”

In term of more direct, practical applications to ORNL research, Wadsworth said energy and national security receive high concentration.

Wadsworth said ORNL brings in “about” $1 billion per year “on a regular basis, adding in jest, “It does not come as a single check, the buck does not stop at my desk, it pauses and I try and grab some of it as it goes by.”

Praising state and federal leaders for interest in ORNL — including Gov. Phil Bredesen, U.S. Senators Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander and U.S. Reps. John J. Duncan and Zach Wamp — Wadsworth said, “Government is very interested in helping recruit the world’s best people to this area. … I’m blessed with beyond belief with the political representation around here.”

About Bredesen, “He’s going to put up to ten million dollars in the budget to attract the best people to this country, and we will match it. … He’s passionate about the lab.”

That as opposed to Wadsworth’s work in California, where former Gov. Jerry Brown “used to try and get arrested every Easter right outside the lab gate,” he said to audience laughter.

Of the 4,100 employees, Wadsworth said about 1,600 are from Knox County. Eighty-four nationalities are represented in the work force.

On another lighter note, Wadsworth pointed out he was wearing “my U-T tie, it’s the first time I’ve worn it, it was given to be by Chancellor [Loren] Crabtree a few weeks ago. There was a spare left over.” The audience broke out in laughter.

Wadsworth outlined a number of challenges ORNL faces.

ORNL continues to “clean up the lab” because work from the 1940s and 1950s “continues to be with us in ways we don’t like … it looks like a Stalag Eighteen. … It costs a fortune to clean up, the bill for that is about eight-hundred million,” he said, causing groans from the audience.

Wadsworth said recruiting talent is a “big challenge,” adding that up to 40 percent of the 4,100 work force “could become retirement eligible” within three to seven years. “And we’re going to be [recruiting] against demographics with fewer and fewer people graduating in the sciences and technologies, and fewer and fewer population going into that area.”

Though labeling the current economic climate as a “tough fiscal year,” Wadsworth added he’d “rather be at Oak Ridge National Lab by a long stretch” versus other similar national labs. “We’ve positioned ourselves very well.”

Coming to the United States in 1976 from his native England, Wadsworth has been ORNL director since 2002 after serving as a member of the White House Transition Planning Office with the U. S. Department of Homeland Security.

“I feel very warmly welcomed to this community,” Wadsworth said. “I think this community is very, very special. It’s a giving community, it’s a caring community. In that sense I view it as a real gift to be here.”

Saying he used to read about Oak Ridge National Laboratory “thirty years ago while researching” in England, “I could little imagine that one day I would be given the opportunity to be the director of this great laboratory that has such a distinguished history.”

Wadsworth is also president/CEO of UT-Battelle, who has managed ORNL since April 2000. Among his other accomplishment, Wadsworth was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2005.


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