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INL director expects growth as clean energy, cybersecurity become global priorities

Funding for the Idaho National Laboratory is expected to double in the span of less than a decade, INL Director John C. Wagner told the City Club of Idaho Falls last week.

The INL was “a $1 billion institution” in 2017, Wagner said, but that number rose to almost $1.6 billion last year, and “in the next few years I would expect us to pass $2 billion.”

The majority of INL’s funding comes from the federal Office of Nuclear Energy, but over the past several years Wagner said the “national security part of our mission has grown substantially,” including work for the U.S. Department of Defense.

The financial growth has been accompanied by an increase in staff: Wagner said INL currently employs about 5,400 people — a number that has risen by about 1,000 in the past five years — and he anticipates hiring “another 1,000 (in) less than five years.”

“These are good-paying jobs in the area,” Wagner added. “Our average salary is over $100,000 a year.”

INL has a “very strong focus on developing our local workforce,” Wagner said, but the lab also looks nationally and globally for employees who want to “change the world’s energy future and secure our critical infrastructure.”

He referred to severe weather events that have damaged oil refineries and caused power outages in Texas, for example, as well as the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline that resulted in gas shortages last year in the southern and eastern regions of the country.

“These issues are exactly what the INL researchers and staff work on every single day,” Wagner said. “We are right in the sweet spot of what is important right now for the nation and for the world in terms of the work that we do.”

INL’s mission centers on clean energy solutions that are secure from both cyber and physical attack, Wagner said, with a “strong focus” on nuclear energy, which has the ability to produce continuous power 24-7.

“We still have a lot of negative public perception issues out there,” Wagner said, referring specifically to the “political and social” challenges involved in producing nuclear energy and storing nuclear waste. “We know how to address these problems technically. What we have to work through is the political and social aspect.”

Wagner said nuclear energy can be combined with other clean power sources that are more “intermittent,” such as wind and solar, to create an “integrated” power grid that produces fewer carbon emissions.

“We need all of that to work together,” he said. “They don’t compete with each other. They can complement each other (to form) a clean energy system … and a much more sustainable future.”

He pointed out that “nations around the world, states across this country, private countries, (and) cities across the world are looking at how they clean their energy systems, how they reduce their carbon emissions.”

“This is happening,” Wagner said. “So many people around the world, and organizations, are trying (to achieve) net-zero carbon emissions.

“That is exactly aligned with our mission.”

INL has set a goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2031, and though the timeline is “ambitious,” Wagner said he is “very excited” about the project.

“Many in my organization are very concerned about the challenges that it will take to (achieve net-zero),” Wagner said, “but we’re a national laboratory, and that’s what national laboratories were established to do — take on the big challenges for the nation.”

So far, he said, INL has created a “pathway” to net-zero by identifying the lab’s carbon emissions sources and outlining the changes that would be required to eliminate them.

“We don’t know how we’re going to address every single aspect of it yet, but we’ve been working on our plans quite significantly,” Wagner said. “Some are pretty straightforward, some are very much not so.”

For example, Wagner said INL maintains a fleet of 79 buses, and “we can’t currently just go somewhere and buy equivalent buses that are non-carbon-emitting, so we’re working with private companies to develop that.”

He guessed that other private companies that are working on their own net-zero plans might start recruiting INL employees in the future.

At the same time, Wagner said long-term employees who delayed retirement during the COVID-19 pandemic might begin leaving the workforce soon, so “human capital” and “workforce development” are both “very important” for INL, which maintains both postdoctoral research and internship programs to help ensure a strong base of incoming staff in the future.

Wagner began as a national laboratory intern, spending time at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee before taking a job at INL.

“We’ve really kind of adopted and love this area,” Wagner said, mentioning his wife and six children, who “supported my goals and my aspirations” and moved to Idaho with him several years ago.

Their experience isn’t unique: Wagner said a lot of his employees from out-of-state are passionate about “engaging in the community and region that we call home.”

“The level of commitment that I see in our leadership team (and) throughout our staff to this area is outstanding,” he said, though he acknowledged that Idaho has experienced an increase in housing costs and a lack of available housing related to a recent influx in residents. “Any support that we can get, really as a community, in terms of being able to address this growth would be very helpful.”

Source: Post Register