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SC colleges expect Savannah River nuclear lab research to reach $1B under partnership

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The Savannah River National Laboratory is located at the Savannah River Site, which is south of Aiken.

COLUMBIA — After the University of Tennessee joined forces in a research partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, it was able to more than quadruple the research dollars that flowed through the institution over the course of a decade. 

The University of South Carolina hopes to accomplish similar results under its new alliance with the Savannah River National Laboratory, which sits 50 miles west of the Capital City near Aiken. 

Over the years Savannah River's lab had grown stagnant, said Hossein Haj-Hariri, dean of USC's College of Engineering and Computing. Its funding was lumped in with that of the larger Savannah River nuclear waste site and scientific research took a backseat to the environmental cleanup work the site was charged with.

Originally established in the 1950s as a think tank aiding in the development of the country's nuclear arsenal, the lab would become largely consumed with research supporting the subsequent hazardous material cleanup and containment work for Savannah River and other national nuclear sites.

But in December the U.S. Department of Energy spun the lab off into a separate entity, with its own budget, and awarded Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute the $3.8 billion contract for its management.

In winning the award Battelle partnered with USC, as well as Clemson University, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia and South Carolina State University in this collaborative agreement.

The schools are expected to flood the lab with dozens of experts and hundreds of students focused on returning it to its mission as a center of technological and scientific advancement.

Instead of $300 million a year going to the research lab, Haj-Hariri expects that could triple close to $1 billion.

"And that will be spent (in South Carolina)," he said. "That is real money that will flow through the region."

The whole process began roughly five years ago. It was his interest in the lab that drew Haj-Hariri from his post at the University of Virginia to USC and it was one of the first visits he paid upon his arrival.

South Carolina's largest university has worked closely with the lab in the past, snagging the occasional $100,000 research project as well as a couple larger proposals that brought in several million in research dollars.

When the contract to manage the lab came up for grabs and it seemed that it might be unshackled from the nuclear site, USC faculty began hosting each of the bidders for two-day visits to discuss partnerships. Haj-Hariri said Battelle became the clear choice, given its experience running eight of the 17 national laboratories across the country.

"I think they understand research," Haj-Hariri said. "They have allowed the labs to pitch new scientific ideas and go with them and that's the best we can hope for in a national lab."

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The prospect of being on the ground floor as the lab redevelops its research focus for the future was exciting.

Today, the Oak Ridge lab, another former nuclear weapons site, has a $2 billion budget after it was able to reinvent itself, with help from the University of Tennessee and Battelle. It opened the largest center for computing in the country and broke into the 3-D printing world. 

"So they’ve picked a couple winners, one after another," Haj-Hariri said, and the school's engineering department has gone from $20 million in annual research dollars to about $95 million.

Haj-Hariri has already doubled his department's own research dollars over the last five years to $36 million. He'd like to double it again, and for that, a large partnership like this is needed.

At Savannah River, electro-chemistry, nuclear friendly construction materials, cybersecurity and sensors able to detect low-level radiation sources around the world are the focus, and USC has world leaders in those fields on staff.

When it came time to draft the management proposal for the lab, two USC employees ran point — Haj-Hariri's associate dean, Mike Matthews, and his close friend Bond Calloway, the lab's former No. 2. Their effort would win out, setting up both the lab and its university partners for growth.

"We expect (financial) resources that will allow the university to grow faculty size by 10 to 12 people," Haj-Hariri said. 

The school also expects funding to send as many as 40 postdoctoral students and 100 graduate students to work at the lab. They also hope to expand the number of faculty who hold dual positions at the university and the laboratory. 

USC plans to tap its chemistry, environmental science, engineering and computing departments to fill these openings. 

“This is a transformative opportunity for our research community and will poise UofSC to reach new heights of research excellence,” says Prakash Nagarkatti, vice president for research. “Our role in managing the Savannah River National Laboratory will help us attract innovative new faculty and outstanding students to join our ranks.”

USC Aiken also will establish an education summer camp for high school students, focused on advanced manufacturing, cyber security and virtual reality research.

“It means workforce development at all levels, specifically outreach to students at all levels, all the way to middle school or even younger,” Haj-Hariri said. “The reach of this lab will be global. UofSC’s impact in the future will be greatly amplified as a result of this partnership."

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