New INL director talks goals, COVID-19 and plans for workforce as he takes the helm - East Idaho News
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New INL director talks goals, COVID-19 and plans for workforce as he takes the helm

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IDAHO FALLS — The new Idaho National Laboratory director is ready to take the reins of the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development.

Battelle Energy Alliance, which manages and operates the laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy, announced in November that John Wagner, Ph.D., would be the next director of the INL. Wagner takes over from Mark Peters, who became executive vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle.

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Wagner started his new role Dec. 11 and has a list of items he is looking forward to accomplishing in this position. At the top of his list is demonstrating advanced reactors.

“We’re on the cusp (within a few years) of demonstrating several advanced reactors,” he said at a news conference Monday. “This is a really critical and exciting time relative to U.S. leadership in nuclear energy and particularly advanced nuclear energy.”

Wagner, who’s married and has six children, earned his bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology. He then received his doctorate and master’s degrees from Pennsylvania State University.

He’s worked at the INL since 2016 in different roles. He was the associate laboratory director for Nuclear Science and Technology before being promoted to the INL director.

“I know this laboratory,” he said. “I have a very good understanding of the projects that are underway, particularly on the nuclear side, and what is needed to be successful with them.”

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Wagner said he moved from Missouri to Idaho about five years ago to contribute in a more direct and personal way in U.S. leadership and nuclear energy.

“That’s what motivates me. It’s what motivated me to move here and motivates me now,” he said.

Internal goal

Wagner said the INL is working with several customers, including the U.S. Department of Defense, on reactors that could be demonstrated within the next five years. They have an internal goal to demonstrate at least two reactors by 2025.

“There’s a number of things in progress beyond that 2025 scale,” he added. “The Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy has an advanced reactor demonstration program. They announced the award of two projects that the goal is to demonstrate within seven years, so 2027-28 timeframe. We’re working with both of those companies.”

Plans for workforce size

Wagner said the INL is “certainly not” looking at any long-term plans to shrink the workforce, but rather to expand.

“We’ve been under an incredible period of growth here at this laboratory — in fact, so much so that we actively are planning and working around managing that growth,” he said.

He said he anticipates continued growth, especially as some of the INL’s large projects come to fruition.

INL and COVID-19

The INL had some delays in projects, particularly back in mid-March when it stood down in operations, according to Wagner. He said the company started ramping back up in the May and June timeframe.

“We do have concerns about schedules going forward,” he said. “Of course, we at least know what we’re dealing with now. In March, we did not. It was all new.”

He noted that one of the things they have to manage is delays in their supply chain. He said some of the items they are relying on to come in are being delayed.

“So far, we are managing the impacts quite well,” Wagner said.

When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine that came to Idaho this week, Wagner said he’d strongly encourage INL employees to receive the vaccine, but the INL has no intentions of making it mandatory at this time.

“It’s hard for me to imagine how that would change,” he said.

Community engagement

When it comes to community engagement, Wagner said his top priority is getting to know community leaders better than he does today.

He said he’s a big supporter of the Battelle model of Simultaneous Excellence, which means delivering excellence in science and technology, management operations and community engagement.

“The laboratory is a big part of this community, and the community is very important to me,” Wagner stated. “You will see that reflected in my actions and my words.”

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