Energy Czar Comes Calling

NEWPORT NEWS -- For the first time in 2 1/2 years, a U.S. Energy Secretary visited the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility here.

Bill Richardson, an eight-time congressman from New Mexico, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and recently minted boss at the Department of Energy, brought hope to the employees at Jefferson Lab and those engaged in the pursuit of science for knowledge's sake.

The last secretary to drop in on the lab was Newport News native Hazel O'Leary in May 1996. Her successor, former Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, resigned for personal reasons before getting to tour the facility. Richardson, who replaced Pena in July, toured the lab Tuesday, speaking to state and local leaders and the media. For lab employees, he conducted an "all-hands meeting," which was closed to the public.

Jefferson Lab, which is run by the Southeastern Universities Research Association for the Department of Energy, focuses on studying matter's properties at the atomic and sub-atomic level -- not exactly stuff that can be easily communicated to the public. Thus, more "glamorous" topics at Energy, such as controlling nuclear stockpiles, have gotten more attention and money in recent years than science.

Richardson, though, vowed that funding for the department's scientific research facilities like Jefferson Lab was headed "in the right direction."

"In my tenure," he said, "science is going to have a higher priority than in the past." He did not mention specific dollar amounts but reiterated that the department's budget request comes out Feb. 1.

"The outlook is good," Richardson said.

Whether Richardson and his staff follow through remains to be seen -- the department will have a handful with electric utility restructuring and the thorny issue of nuclear waste disposal. The department is under attack from utilities and legislators for what they say is DOE foot-dragging on burying the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.

But Hermann Grunder, director of Jefferson Lab, was confident in Richardson's science commitment.

"The Secretary has all the vision and background to make a real difference," Grunder said. "All his actions point in this direction."

Federal research facilities like Jefferson Lab face increasing pressure to "produce" --that is, come up with tangible products or applications to justify their funding. One measure that it's happening at Jefferson Lab is the complex's "Applied Research Center," Richardson said.

He announced that the center, opened last May, is at full occupancy. The ARC, as it's known, aims to wed the competencies of area universities, the private sector and lab employees to spin lab-developedtechnology into commercial products.

The tenant list includes four start-up companies, four publicly and privately funded organizations and four universities -- Christopher Newport, the College of William and Mary, Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University.

H. Frederick Dylla, manager for the lab's Free Electron Laser, said "it's a very healthy start" for the $18 million ARC building, although he admitted "there aren't a lot of commercial successes" yet.

For instance Dilon Technologies, a tenant company that is commercializing a Jefferson Lab imaging system, just entered the clinical testing phase of its advanced mammography machine.

But Dylla said the constant flow and interaction of ideas make the ARC -- and 200 acres of surrounding land meant for a technology park -- prime breeding ground for technology-based economic growth.

"It's still early."