Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory is dedicated in Richland on October 16, 1996.

  • By Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 4/15/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5678
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On October 16, 1996, the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) is dedicated in Richland. The high-tech laboratory is the fulfillment of a dream by longtime director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, William R. Wiley (1931-1996). U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Hazel O'Leary delivers the dedication speech. The lab's main focus will be to develop new methods of cleaning up the nuclear waste at Hanford and at other DOE sites across the country.

A State-of-the-Art Lab

In 1986, Wiley conceptualized a state-of-the-art research laboratory that would research the world's greatest environmental, health, and energy challenges. He felt that such challenges could only be resolved with research at the molecular level, combined with dedicated study of the physical and life sciences. There are many laboratories across the country that do one thing well or that contain one powerful piece of scientific equipment. Wiley felt these resources should be combined into one facility to guarantee success.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the research and development contractor at the Hanford Site, initially spent $8.5 million establishing a base laboratory in an existing building and then sending a promotional team throughout the Pacific Northwest. Wiley championed his cause, always on hand to expound on the virtues of such an innovative laboratory environment.  Gradually, support and enthusiasm for the lab grew among universities and the scientific community. Wiley recruited several prominent scientists to form a core team to study initial projects and recruit others. Various Department of Energy sites vied for the lucrative research contract, before the DOE chose the Richland location in 1993. Groundbreaking turned up Native American bones of indeterminate origin and age, and subsequent protests by local tribes caused the site for EMSL to be relocated. The red-brick laboratory is located at the north end of George Washington Way in Richland.


Wiley's Dream Come True

Total construction cost came to $230 million. In the 200,000-square-foot building, there is space for about 270 staff members and 80 individual laboratories. Scientists have a huge array of scientific equipment available for their use, including the world's most powerful nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. The most powerful parallel computer ever built by IBM crunches data, renders computer modeling, and records results of laboratory research. The lab's resources are available to private researchers as long as any results are published in the public domain. Researchers who publish privately for profit pay fees to reimburse the lab, since it is publicly funded through taxes.

During its short life span, the laboratory has had many successes. Scientists are proud of the cellular observatory, where they study how cells respond to various stimuli. The instrument development laboratory has invented several new products, including new machines that detect yellow fever. EMSL scientists are working with Motorola to develop the next generation of semiconductors. Scientists have patented more than 30 new scientific instruments. Resident researchers have received more than 100 prestigious research and development awards.

Almost 600 people gathered for the dedication. Hazel O'Leary delivered the opening remarks, and other dignitaries were on hand to commemorate the day. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory director Bill Madia commented on the lab's potential. Martha Krebs, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy, challenged the scientists to fulfill Wiley's dream. John Waggoner, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy, Richland Operations Office, spoke about the role of EMSL in accelerating Hanford cleanup. Also on hand were State Representative Doc Hastings, State Representative Norm Dicks, and Senator Patty Murray.

Sadly, the lab's chief benefactor, William Wiley, died suddenly, just three months before the lab's dedication. But on hand to receive his honors, was his wife Gus, who cut the ribbon after the speeches were over. The scissors she used to cut the ribbon were once used by Wiley at his office. Though event planners reserved the Battelle Auditorium in case of inclement weather, it proved unnecessary. After the morning clouds blew away, the 90-minute dedication ceremony took place under blue skies. The laboratory officially opened for business one year later, in October 1997.


"Big Names Mean Big Decisions for Arrival of Federal Officials," Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), October 16, 1997, p.3; "Laboratory Sets New Direction for Hanford," Ibid., October 17, 1997, pp. 1, 2; "Special Report," PNNL Breakthroughs Magazine (Winter/Spring 2003), Pacific Northwest National Laboratories Website accessed on March 27, 2004 (http://www.pnl.gov/breakthroughs/winter-spring03/special_report.stm).

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