Idaho National Laboratory played host Sept. 21 and 22 to members of the Oppenheimer Science and Energy Leadership Program (OSELP), a group pegged as rising stars in the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratory complex.

Nominations for the group come from lab directors across the complex. They are reviewed by an advisory panel of former lab directors, who choose the finalists. Through visits to labs and companies such as Microsoft and Google, participants learn about the DOE enterprise and how it fits within the national research landscape.

Two managers from INL are part of the second OSELP “cohort”: Dr. John C. Wagner and Dr. Shannon Bragg-Sitton.

Wagner was recently named associate lab director of INL’s Nuclear Science and Technology Directorate. After earning his doctorate from Pennsylvania State University in 1997, he joined Holtec International as a principal engineer performing criticality safety analyses and licensing activities. He was lead of the original team that licensed the HI-STAR and HI-STORM 100 cask systems. He joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1999, taking on several leadership positions before becoming leader of the Radiation Transport and Criticality Group and later technical lead for post-closure criticality in support of the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management’s Lead Laboratory for Repository Systems. In 2014, he became director of the Reactor and Nuclear Systems Division, growing it to 130 staff and postdocs.

Bragg-Sitton, a senior nuclear engineer, serves as deputy national technical director for the Advanced Fuels Campaign (AFC) in the DOE Fuel Cycle Research and Development Program. She is also the lead for Nuclear-Renewable Hybrid Energy Systems (N-R HES) under the DOE-NE Crosscutting Technology Development Program, part of a larger collaborative project between INL and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The N-R HES mission is to couple nuclear and renewable technologies to produce both electricity and any additional commodity that might require thermal and electrical energy input to drive the industrial process. These systems would be designed to optimize energy use for the combined electricity, industrial manufacturing and transportation sectors.

The cohort included researchers from Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne, Los Alamos, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore, and Ames National Laboratory, as well as faculty from Purdue University and Colorado School of Mines. The variety of expertise is as wide as the geographical area from which members come: biofuels, nuclear nonproliferation, materials science, supercomputing, clean energy and water systems, laboratory performance analysis, and subsurface science.

“What this program offers is a look at the incredible scale and scope of the national laboratory complex,” said Maureen McCann, director of Purdue University’s Energy Center, who was nominated to OSELP by Sandia National Laboratories. Many people across the complex have only a vague understanding of what goes on at other labs – a “jigsaw puzzle” view that limits awareness of what national laboratories do for the county.

This was McCann’s first visit to INL, and because Purdue has a strong bioenergy portfolio, she was keenly interested in the work being done at the lab’s Biomass Feedstock National User Facility (BFNUF). “The passion of the people who work here is really striking,” she said.

While the OSELP experience involves visiting various national labs and other points of interest, there is more to it than that. Spaced throughout the year, the program offers participants the opportunity to come together as a group, collaborating with senior mentors on self-assigned white papers or “think pieces.”

“It’s just such a unique opportunity,” Bragg-Sitton said. “We’re interacting with the up-and-coming leaders across the laboratory system. When we visit other labs, it’s not to ask what’s happening at them, but ‘why’ and ‘How are you making it happen?’ It’s a side of things you don’t see working day to day.”

Coming from a nuclear engineering background, Wagner said he has found the OSELP experience “really thought-provoking.”

Part of the program is a requirement to send a sample memo to the Secretary of Energy on a major policy initiative. “There are a lot of candid discussions about strategy, and we are all getting exposed to different things going on,” he said.

On the second day of the INL visit, OSELP gathered at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies auditorium to hear from Wayne Austad, director of Idaho National Laboratory’s Cybercore Integration Center, and John Jackson, technical interface for the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN). Though both are based at INL, they stressed that their organizations are focused on partnering with other players in the DOE complex, along with industry and academia.

Jackson spoke about a memorandum of understanding between Sandia, INL and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the challenges in coping with the differences in culture. “You can’t go in with a hammer,” he said. “A graded approach to a relationship is really critical. You have to start with a conversation.” Two years in, the three labs have managed to craft a joint Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) agreement.

With GAIN, established in 2015, Jackson stressed its status as an initiative rather than a program. “We’re not focused on one core team of people or one concept,” he said. “In this sense, everyone is on the team.” GAIN was formed to keep the United States at the head of nuclear technology development in an increasingly competitive world. “We really want to face outward now.”

OSELP started in 2016 as the Energy Sciences Leadership Group, but was renamed in January 2017 in honor of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who at age 38 was put in charge of the Manhattan Project. The Government-Owned Contractor-Operated (GOCO) management approach introduced for the Manhattan Project continues as the predominant management model for the DOE laboratories.

Bragg-Sitton said the biggest rewards she has experienced so far are the insights she has gotten into how DOE’s Office of Science and National Nuclear Security Administration labs operate. They have discussed the “revolutionary” working group, established to examine the laboratory contract structure at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, with the objective of developing a more streamlined approach to improve the partnership and reduce transactional oversight.