Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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Oak Ridge’s Thomas Zacharia Knows the Power of Innovation

December 7, 2022

December 7, 2022

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Thomas Zacharia describes his story as uniquely American. When he came to the U.S. from India in 1981, he had a degree in mechanical engineering and $8 in his pocket. Today he runs Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), America’s largest science and energy laboratory, overseeing more than 6,000 staffers and an annual budget of more than $2.4 billion. “To be leading such a prestigious, history-making organization is unthinkable in any other country for an immigrant,” he says over video from his office in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

At the end of the year, Dr. Zacharia, 65, will retire after 35 years at ORNL, which was founded as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. When he assumed the top job in 2017, he was inspired by the lab’s history as a place where scientists from all over the world came to invent the nuclear-reactor technology that helped to win the war, generate new energy sources and enable new insights into the fundamental laws of the universe.

“I wanted to capture that sense of mission for a new era,” he explains. “For this generation, it’s climate change and the energy transition.”