John Grossenbacher took over when Battelle Energy Alliance won the lab contract in 2005, leading the consolidation of Argonne National Laboratory-West and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to form today’s Idaho National Laboratory.
He outlasted the previous two lab directors, under Bechtel, by at least six years — and had twice the career life span of many other lab directors around the country.
“I’m stubborn,” Grossenbacher said in a wide-ranging Thursday interview with the Post Register. “My leadership isn’t perfect, but at least it’s consistent. And I think that’s important, especially for big institutions.”
The interview was one of a string of engagements before Grossenbacher leaves INL on Wednesday. On Thursday, he gave a lunchtime presentation and took questions from the City Club of Idaho Falls about the future of the lab and other topics. Later in the evening he was set to speak at the Museum of Idaho, and hand over a $50,000 Battelle donation for a museum expansion.
Next week he will be working closely with his replacement, Mark Peters, from the Chicago-area Argonne National Laboratory, and going over a long list of lab priorities and other to-dos.
Grossenbacher, 66, said he is confident in leaving the laboratory in a good position for the next decade. He said he doesn’t know what his next step is, but he’s confident it won’t be retirement. He said Idaho Falls has become his home.
“This is as good a time as any,” he said of departing INL. “But I wouldn’t have felt comfortable five years ago.”
Grossenbacher, a retired Navy vice admiral, said he helped out in the early stages of the national search for his replacement, identifying possible candidates. He was not involved in selecting Peters, 51, but said he supported Battelle’s decision.
Grossenbacher said he knows Peters “reasonably well” and that he is a “terrific guy.” Peters was an Argonne associate director in that lab’s energy and global security program.
“He’s done a lot of work with used nuclear fuel, and of course he’s been in the laboratory business for a long time,” Grossenbacher said of Peters. “I also know him personally, and he’s a good man. He’s good and honest, and does things for the right reasons. So I’m pleased to see he’ll be succeeding me here.
“His experience base is different. I suspect in some ways he’ll be much better than I was. That’s always the advantage of bringing in a new (background). But he’s a smart, flexible guy.”
Last month, Ron Townsend, the chairman of Battelle’s Board of Managers, said much of Grossenbacher’s legacy centers on infrastructure improvements at the lab. He pointed to University Boulevard and its multistory research facilities built since Grossenbacher took over.
“The view is that, boy, John took this laboratory and put it on the map,” Townsend told the Post Register.
Grossenbacher agreed with that assessment, but said there was more to his work at INL.
“The facilities (impact) is the easiest one to point to, because it’s easily tangible and visible,” he said. “You look at University Place, and remember that in 2005, that was an empty farmer’s field, and now there are nine buildings.”
The Energy Innovation Laboratory, for example, now serves as INL’s in-town meeting place and conference center, a feature the lab never had before, Grossenbacher said.
But he said he’s worked to improve other areas as well. The lab has hired new scientists and engineers under his watch, “and their quality and impact continues to improve.”
He also pointed to big gains in high-performance computing and information management under his guidance. Another recent growth area is cybersecurity, specifically related to protecting infrastructure such as power plants and the grid from hackers.
Overall, Grossenbacher said, he’s proud to have integrated a sprawling INL into one cohesive institution. It includes research facilities both in Idaho Falls and across 890 square miles of desert. It’s possible to have employees who’ve traded emails and talked on the phone for years, but never met in person, he said.
“Making the lab see itself as a whole has been an important effort,” he said.
“Overall, I think it’s been a continuous, upward trend in terms of the capability of the laboratory, as well as its performance.”
FOCUS ON SPENT FUEL
One topic Grossenbacher has been focused on in recent months is working to get research quantities of spent nuclear fuel shipped to the lab for research. The shipments have thus far been banned by the state, until a troubled nuclear waste treatment facility is up and running.
Grossenbacher recently has focused on an effort to delink the lab’s research efforts from cleanup efforts by other contractors on the desert site.
“The linkage of cleanup milestones with the lab, I think, is an artifact of the past, I really do,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate today, and it’s damaging and not in the state’s best interest.”
He said he would say everything he could on the subject before he departs. It was a focus of his Thursday City Club talk.
Grossenbacher said he was worried the U.S. Department of Energy will soon be forced to send at least one of the shipments elsewhere.
“We’re stuck right now,” he said. “DOE has not made a decision — yet — to send one of those shipments to another laboratory. As every day goes on, it’s clearer that there’s more and more motivation for DOE to do that, because it’s causing delays, and will cost them money. And by the way, there are other laboratories raising their hands saying, ‘We can do this (research).’ ”
Grossenbacher said nuclear energy research will always be INL’s core mission. But other research areas, he said, will also help keep the lab growing for the next decade.
“We’re in the right business,” he said. “We’re in the research and development business — and there’s a desperate need for science and engineering in our country to solve very difficult problems.”
He also said the lab has the right specialties, which are poised for growth in future years. Outside nuclear, those specialties include national security research as well as energy and environmental research.
“I’m convinced we’ve chosen the right problems to attack,” he said.
Those challenges include developing more accident-tolerant nuclear fuels, and, in homeland security, much of the research growth will be in cybersecurity protection of infrastructure. He also pointed to further improvement of biofuels as an area of research growth in the energy and environmental research department.
In 10 years, Grossenbacher said, the lab likely will grow from just under 4,000 employees to about 5,000. And he predicted the roughly $900 million yearly budget would then be about $2 billion.
“That’s not wild and crazy by any means,” he said of the estimate. “That’s just keep doing what we’re doing.”