Category Archives: DOE in Focus

Most people outside the Department of Energy (DOE) don’t fully realize the breadth of DOE’s mission, the wide-ranging projects constantly underway, or how many programs, offices, and laboratories there are across the nation performing amazing work. In the “DOE in Focus” series of articles, I will feature specific offices and laboratories, give some background into its history and mission, and highlight some interesting recent projects and developments at those locations.

Stranger Things Season 2: A Pointed Comment on the Department of Energy’s Nuclear History and Future?

This post is written assuming you have watched both season 1 and season 2 of ‘Stranger Things.’ If you have not yet watched and want to avoid potential spoilers, consider this your warning!

‘Stranger Things’ was the Netflix sensation out of nowhere in 2016, which made season 2 one of the most anticipated TV releases of this year. While this sci-fi mystery thriller seemingly had something for everyone– parallel dimensions, 80s nostalgia, mystical and mysterious forces, pop cultural references– I was also drawn in by the depiction of the Department of Energy (DOE) as the malevolent government forces behind the secretive experiments. Seeing DOE scientists at the fictional Hawkins Lab, rather than the typical Hollywood choices to use the FBI or the CIA for supernatural government cover-ups, was exciting for all of us who have worked in or with DOE and created a buzz in DOE offices and labs across the country.

Leading up to the release of season 2, I wrote about the interesting parallels that existed between Hawkins Lab and the real DOE labs. Some of these parallels appeared to be intentional similarities written by the Duffer Brothers (the show’s creators), while others were likely coincidental. With that in mind, I was very eager to watch for anything DOE-related in season 2 to see if I could gather more information about what it was the Duffer Brothers might have been trying to say about the real government agency, or would season 2 put to rest the connection between Hawkins Lab and the real DOE.



Well after just three nights on the couch, I’ve finished by ‘Stranger Things’ season 2 binge and have two main takeaways:

  1. I can’t believe I’m already done with the new batch of episodes and now have to go through another year at least before getting to do it again with season 3!
  2. One scene in particular has convinced me that the choice to use DOE was intentionally symbolic and is a pointed metaphor for the history and future of the agency.

The scene in question

Honestly, I would have been bingeing this show regardless of the DOE connection. So after a few episodes I had ceased paying terribly close attention to potential DOE parallels and was simply enjoying the story. But a specific scene in ‘Chapter Four: Will the Wise’ hit me over the head with its metaphor enough that I had to pause the episode to excitedly discuss it with my wife.

To set the scene, Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers had called the mother of the missing and dead (from season 1) Barb Holland to admit that they hadn’t been fully honest about the night that Barb went missing (they knew the truth that Barb had been lost and killed in the parallel dimension of the Upside Down, but Barb’s parents had been shielded from this fact). They expressed their hesitation to discuss the matter on the phone, as they were correctly concerned that their phones were tapped by the government monitoring forces, and instead requested to meet in person in public. When Nancy and Jonathan go to the meet up spot, they are sitting ducks and get intercepted by undercover Hawkins Lab agents. They are taken to the lab to speak with Dr. Sam Owens, the new head scientist at Hawkins Lab, replacing the evil and manipulative Dr. Martin Brenner. Immediately, this situation looks like it will end poorly for the teens, as it surely would have were Dr. Brenner still in charge– he was never overly concerned with protecting the citizens of Hawkins and might have resorted to threats of violence. However, Dr. Owens’ approach is instead to explain the difficult scenario he inherited and hope the Nancy and Jonathan understand why the secrets of the lab cannot be made public.

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The following is a transcript of the dialogue of this scene:

Dr. Owens: Men of science have made abundant mistakes of every kind. George Sarton said that. You guys know who George Sarton is? Doesn’t really matter. The point is mistakes have been made.

Nancy: Mistakes? You killed Barbara!

Dr. Owens: Abundant mistakes. But the men involved in those mistakes– the ones responsible for what happened to your brother and Ms. Holland’s death– are gone. They’re gone, and for better or worse I’m the schmuck they brought in to make things better. But I can’t make things better without your help.

Nancy: You mean without us shutting up?

Dr. Owens: She’s tough, this one. You guys been together long?

Jonathan: We’re not together.

Dr. Owens: You want to see what really killed your friend?

The three of them enter the area containing open portal to the Upside Down, which has grown much larger and more dangerous looking compared with what we saw throughout season 1. There are tentacles coming from the portal.

Dr. Owens: Teddy– brought you an audience today, hope you don’t mind.

Teddy (lab agent who is getting dressed in a protective suit): The more the merrier, sir.

Dr. Owens: I’d call it one hell of a mistake, wouldn’t you? The thing is, we can’t seem to erase our mistake. But we can stop it from spreading. It’s like pulling weeds. But imagine for a moment if a foreign state, let’s say the Soviets, if they heard about our mistake. Do you think they would even consider that a mistake? What if they tried to replicate that? The more attention we bring to ourselves, the more people like the Hollands that know the truth, the more likely that scenario becomes. You see why I have to stop the truth from spreading too, just like those weeds there. By whatever means necessary.

Teddy begins to spray fire all across the portal and the tentacles of the creature coming from the portal, which leads it to squirm and let out a noise of pain.

Dr. Owens: So, we understand each other now, don’t we?

After this scene when Nancy and Jonathan leave the lab, it is revealed that Nancy had a tape recorder and recorded Dr. Owens’ admission that Hawkins Lab, and thus DOE, was at fault for the death of Barb and all the other ills that had befallen the town due to the opening of this portal.

How does this relate to the real Department of Energy?

After hearing Dr. Owens describe the creation of the portal to the Upside Down and all the associated technology as a mistake and express the fear that enemy nations might replicate it, it immediately signaled that this scene was intended to describe the way many scientists and government officials felt during and after the Manhattan Project was used to develop and deploy the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II, as well as the fear and regret about the continued existence of nuclear weapons since that time.

The Manhattan Project was the government sponsored effort to develop the technology behind nuclear weapons, and it is to this effort that the Department of Energy traces its origins. These efforts were marked with secrecy, espionage, and a recognition of the vast worldwide implications of a potential development of a nuclear bomb.
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The quotes from Dr. Owens during this scene, if interpreted as an allegory for the development of nuclear weapons by DOE in the 1940s, provide a number of clues as to the parallels between the Manhattan Project and the ‘mistakes’ to which Dr. Owens refers.

Men of science have made abundant mistakes of every kind…The point is mistakes have been made.

Noting that all the experimentation and resultant terrors performed by Hawkins Lab during season 1 were mistakes does nothing to change that these mistakes were made. However, such an admission is one way to begin a healing and repair process. Similarly, many of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project have been noted in the years that followed to have found the entire effort to have been a mistake, using such admission to spur discussion about the future use of nuclear weapons, deal with personal guilt, and find any potential good that can come out of the situation.

Despite the official stance that DOE is “proud of and feels a strong sense of responsibility for its Manhattan Project heritage,” many people would still contend that it was wrong to bring nuclear weapons into the world. In the years that followed, various levels of regret have been expressed by the physicists involved in the creation of the nuclear technology.

  • While Albert Einstein was not directly involved in the development of nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project (the government denied him the necessary security clearance to be involved), it was a letter he wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to support the research and development of atomic weapons before Germany could do so that prompted to U.S. government to launch the Manhattan Project. Einstein would come to regret his role in kicking off the age of nuclear weapons after finding that the Germans never did produce an atomic bomb, stating that if he had known that would be the case he “would have never lifted a finger.”

 

 

  • At the same time, 70 scientists who actively worked on the Manhattan Project wrote and circulated the Szilard Petition that asked President Harry S. Truman not use the atomic bomb on populated land. Instead, they urged him to deploy an observed demonstration of the power of the bomb. The hope of these less hawkish scientists was that they were creating a weapon the threat of which would end the war, and if deployed on a remote island for the enemies to see its devastating power then that would be enough to earn surrender (in an odd footnote of history, the petition never made its way up the chain of command to reach the President). Obviously, the efforts of these scientists to delay (or ideally make unnecessary) the dropping of the atomic bomb failed.

 

  • The most famous Manhattan Project scientists who would openly consider the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons a mistake was J. Robert Oppenheimer– considered to be the father of the atomic bomb that came out of the Manhattan Project. At his farewell ceremony from Los Alamos Lab, Oppenheimer speculated that if atomic bombs were now to become a regular part of war then “mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.” Even more famously, in a meeting with President Harry S. Truman after the war, a still-shaken Oppenheimer confided that he felt he had blood on his hands. While Truman dismissed those concerns by insisting the responsibility for the deaths of the tens of thousands of Japanese who died was his own, Oppenheimer was instead concerned about the countless potential deaths his atomic bomb could cause to future generations.

While the Manhattan Project scientists like Shachter and those who signed the Szilard Petition were focused on whether the development and use of the bomb was the right move during World War II, Oppenheimer was forward looking and was contemplating if the development of the technology was one of those abundant mistakes that science makes. Several years later, Oppenheimer would confirm this position, stating that “we have made a very grave mistake” in even considering the massive use of nuclear weapons.

 

But the men involved in those mistakes– the ones responsible for what happened to your brother and Ms. Holland’s death– are gone. THey’re gone, and for better or worse I’m the schmuck they brought in to make things better. 

When Dr. Owens says that those responsible for the nefarious actions of Hawkins Lab are gone, he seems to be suggesting that because the original architects are gone that those in charge are largely inculpable. They are gone, and now the new leadership can only do what it can to make things better.

Similarly, in the years that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs, much was made about the need for new leadership behind the research, production, and regulation of the technology. Along with the uncertainty the scientists of the Manhattan Project had regarding the appropriateness of using the nuclear weapons was the uncertainty that that power belonged in the hands of the government. As such, some of these scientists joined and formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists in 1945 and pushed for civilian control of nuclear research and production. These scientists thought it was the scientists, not the policymakers, who were the best stewards for the technology and that a change in this leadership would allow them to make things better.

Another leadership option that was widely discussed in the years following World War II was the possibility of a United Nations Atomic Energy Commission to take worldwide responsibility for atomic energy. The idea was that worldwide leadership would ensure that nuclear technology was only developed for peaceful purposes, rather than the destructive and warring use that was immediately developed under the leadership of the U.S. government. The agreements of the Commission would have called for the United States to destroy its atomic arsenal and a disclosure of the atomic secrets, but disagreements between the Soviet Union and the United States ultimately undermined and tanked the Commission. This failure would point the world towards a future Cold War and a path where the nuclear question still loomed.

In the end, the U.S. government settled on passing the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, which created the Atomic Energy Commission (the predecessor agency of DOE) as a civilian committee that took over responsibility of legacy U.S. nuclear development from the Manhattan Project. While the agency eliminated complete military control, a Military Liaison Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission kept the military involved and there was still a “strict government monopoly on both scientific and technological knowledge, and fissionable materials.”

In the end, despite efforts on the national and international scale, the leadership was never changed completely away from the U.S. government that created the nuclear weapons in the first place. In the absence of such real change, it appears that things have predictably only gotten worse– with nuclear warhead inventories skyrocketing to above 60,000 at their peak during the Cold War and remaining around 10,000 warheads across 9 countries today. Perhaps if a real schmuck, an international equivalent to Dr. Owens, had been given control and leadership, then things would have been made better.
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I’d call it one hell of a mistake, wouldn’t you? The thing is, we can’t seem to erase our mistake. But we can stop it from spreading. It’s like pulling weeds.

While Dr. Owens and the new leadership at Hawkins Lab were not responsible for the creation of the portal to the Upside Down and the unleashing of the creatures that inhabit it, the job of containing the mistake did fall to them. They couldn’t undo the past even if they wanted to, so instead they continually try to clean up the mess and stop it from spreading.

This weeding metaphor is very apt for the responsibilities DOE continues to manage after the predecessor agency brought for the age of nuclear weapons. As Oppenheimer noted, “the physicists have known sin: and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” While the scientists cannot take back the knowledge of nuclear weapons and how to create them from the world, they have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent its spread.

During the Cold War, DOE was in charge of nuclear weapons development and production. While the goal since the end of the Cold War has been to decrease stockpiles of nuclear warheads across the world, DOE has remained involved in the fallout of these nuclear weapons of the past. In 2000, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was formed as a semi-autonomous agency within DOE whose jobs include managing the nuclear weapon stockpile, promoting international nuclear safety and nonproliferation, and more. Also included in these efforts is managing the environmental aspects of past and future nuclear development, such as managing and storing nuclear waste. These waste storage sites are managed by DOE across the country, often sparking outrage and controversy wherever they go, and are one of the ongoing containment activities required by DOE after the ushering in of nuclear weapons. DOE also finds itself at the table during discussions of international nuclear issues, such as its role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in an effort to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.
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In addition to storing new nuclear waste, a large part of DOE’s mission (and associated budget) is to provide environmental cleanup at “107 sites across the country whose area is equal to the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware” where nuclear weapons were developed, tested, and stored. Not only that, but DOE also finds itself continuing to pay for healthcare costs to those in the Marshall Islands that ended up affected by radioactive fallout of nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s on nearby islands. The need to perform these actions now and for the foreseeable future are possibly the best examples of DOE’s need to continue ‘weeding’ to prevent the spread of ills from its previously developed nuclear weapons.

But imagine for a moment if a foreign state, let’s say the Soviets, if they heard about our mistake. Do you think they would even consider that a mistake? What if they tried to replicate that?

One of the chief concerns at Hawkins Lab is that an enemy nation will find out about the technology they created and then assume it was done to create a weapon and/or replicate that technology for a weapon of their own. These fears are what drives the massive amount of security, secrecy, and monitoring at Hawkins Lab. These ideas are also directly applicable to the use of nuclear technology– both in its origin in the United States and in modern times across the globe.

In the days of the Manhattan Project, chief among the priorities were keeping the entire program secret from Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. While fission, the core scientific discovery behind the atomic bomb, was discovered in Germany, the ability to harness the resultant chain reaction and use it as a weapon was what was at stake. The result was a period of extensive espionage between the United States and these enemy nations, with Soviet spies actually successfully penetrating the Manhattan Project at several locations. Between these governments, it was no secret that the technology was actively being pursued and that the goal of doing so was for anything but peaceful means. However, the secrecy about the progress and scientific breakthroughs were critical– and in these ways the Manhattan Project embodied the paranoid secrecy that Dr. Owens and Hawkins Lab felt about their dimension jumping technology falling into the hands of enemy nations.

Even after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war ended, the efforts of the U.S. government continued to focus on making sure the nuclear capabilities stayed out of the hands of the Soviets and other nations. This secrecy was so important to the U.S. government that one of the main reasons the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission failed to become a reality was due to the proposed requirement that the United States turn over the scientific and technological secrets behind the nuclear bomb. This fear went to such an extent that when the Cold War started to heat up, accusations that Oppenheimer, the central figure in the development of the atomic bomb for the United States, was a communist resulted in a repeal of his security clearance.
Even today, the United States finds itself as the country with the most nuclear weapons in its arsenal but also leading the conversation in ensuring additional nations do not acquire these weapons and working to reduce the existing stockpiles of weapons across all nations. The desire to ensure foreign states do not acquire the technology that the United States developed decades ago rings true to the fears Dr. Owens expresses about the past mistakes at Hawkins Lab.

The more attention we bring to ourselves, the more people like the Hollands that know the truth, the more likely that scenario becomes. You see why I have to stop the truth from spreading too, just like those weeds there.

Lastly, the highly secretive nature of Hawkins Lab is very true to the situation across U.S. towns that were home to Manhattan Project facilities. Despite employing 130,000 workers and spending $2.2 billion during the course of the Manhattan Project, most people across the United States were floored to find the extent to which such a large operation could have been kept such a secret. The entire town of Oak Ridge was built around the secret project, with the existence of the town itself kept a secret as well. Even among employees at the Manhattan Project facilities the end goal of the labs were kept secret, with most lower level workers at the facilities simply performed whatever rote task they were assigned without being explained what its purpose was or the big picture. Many workers simply watched large quantities of raw materials enter the facility, saw nothing coming out, and were tasked with monitoring dials and switches  behind thick concrete walls without knowing the purpose behind these monitors or their jobs. This extent of secrecy was seen as critical to the mission of the Manhattan Project, as any amount of information spreading out to the outside world would put the mission at risk. Secrecy defined the early stages of the nuclear age, as it also defined the work going on in Hawkins Lab. The secrets behind the real DOE and Hawkins Lab only remained secrets, however, until the scientists lost control of their creations as they started to affect the unsuspecting public.

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Is this reading too much into one scene of a TV show?

While I don’t particularly like over-analyzing metaphors and symbolism that aren’t intended by creators to be there (shout out to literature teachers everywhere insisting that Fahrenheit 451 is about something Ray Bradbury himself denies), due to my experience with DOE and focus on its depiction in the show I couldn’t help but find some real world parallels that I think might have been an intentional metaphor included by the writers.

Admittedly, it seems that this part of the episode that is midway through season 2 might just be meant to signal shift in the plot. Whereas the antagonists in season 1 were Dr. Brenner and his team, with the Demogorgon being the unintended creation of these bad guys, it seems the Duffer Brothers used this scene as an opportunity to reset and shift the plot. The scientists at Hawkins Lab no longer have nefarious intentions (in a later episode, Dr. Owens is even the voice of reason in not allowing Will to die as a means to an end of defeating the mysterious forces putting the town at risk), and instead the main antagonists of the show are now the forces and creatures that continue to make their way through from the Upside Down.

Despite this function of the scene as a story-telling device that sets up the rest of season 2, it does also appear to speak to advent of nuclear weapons as the reason why DOE was chosen as the dark government agency in the series instead of the more commonly used FBI or CIA (seriously, can you name another pop culture avenue in which the Department of Energy plays a main role in the plot? The only two I could come up with are 1) Captain America, Campbell’s Soup, and DOE teaming up in comic book form for energy conservation and 2) the selection of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ participant Rick Perry as the Secretary of Energy.

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Source 1 Source 2

Because of the seemingly deliberate choice of words for Dr. Owens in this one scene, I believe the Duffer Brothers are pointing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the large mistake made by DOE in the past, which to this day requires constant weeding to prevent the effects of this mistake from spreading. Further, the devastating impacts shown by the creatures of the Upside Down when released into our dimension serve as a small reminder of the apocalyptic effects that the use of nuclear warfare could have on the world– a point that is made all the more poignant with nuclear tensions as high as they are today between the United States and certain hostile foreign states. For that, let’s all just hope diplomacy and cool heads prevail, lest the metaphorical Demagorgons of the world show what devastation really looks like.

 

Sources and additional reading
A Petition to the President of the United States: Dannen.com

As Hiroshima Smouldered, Our Atom Bomb Scientists Suffered Remorse: Newsweek

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

How would Hawkins National Lab from ‘Stranger Things’ fit in with the real Department of Energy Labs?

NOTE THAT THIS ARTICLE WILL DEAL OPENLY WITH THE PLOT OF STRANGER THINGS SEASON 1, SO IF YOU HAVE NOT YET WATCHED IT THEN THIS IS YOUR ONE AND ONLY SPOILER WARNING

Unless you were living under a rock and/or don’t subscribe to Netflix, you know that the 2016 debut of the television show ‘Stranger Things’ was one of the surprise pop culture hits of the year. The story follows a small town in Indiana where a boy goes missing, a girl with supernatural abilities is found, and it all unfolds in the shadow of dark and mysterious government agents.

While I loved the show and would recommend it to anyone who likes a good sci-fi mystery, what really grabbed my attention was that those dark and mysterious government agents were from Hawkins National Laboratory—a fictional Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory. While DOE’s National Labs are often referred to as ‘crown jewels’ of national science and research, they are not fully understood by the general public. So even though Hawkins Lab is fictional (and sinister), ‘Stranger Things’ shined an unfamiliar light on DOE labs that are not usually recognized outside of the federal energy policy and energy technological research spheres.



With season 2 of ‘Stranger Things’ set to hit Netflix on October 27, 2017, I thought it would be fun to explore the similarities and differences that Hawkins Lab shares with the 17 real DOE labs across the United States. While DOE has already commented on how DOE doesn’t deal with monsters or evil scientists—isn’t that exactly what evil scientists who deal with monsters would say? Seems like some outside research is warranted.

Location

Indiana

In ‘Stranger Things,’ Hawkins National Laboratory is located in a federal complex in Hawkins, a fictional city in Indiana. Depending on where in Indiana the fictional Hawkins is located, since that is never made specific in the series, the closest DOE lab is either Argonne National Lab just outside of Chicago, Illinois, or Oak Ridge National Lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Either way, DOE has labs in the Midwestern states, making Indiana a realistic place for a National Laboratory.

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City of Hawkins

The city of Hawkins, Indiana is portrayed to be a small city where everyone knows each other’s business and the local police force is a very small operation. Of the options that are near to Indiana in real life, this type of town is certainly more reminiscent of the town surrounding Oak Ridge National Lab, where the sum of employees, students, visiting scientists, and facility users is equal to over 35% the total city population. The city of Hawkins might even have a much larger population than the non-laboratory citizens realize if they are all housed inside the secret laboratory campus, making the parallels in type of location between Hawkins Lab a real DOE lab even stronger than they initially seem.

One note here is that, originally, the show was going to take place in Montauk on Long Island. If this were the case, it would have placed the setting of the show only 60 miles from Brookhaven National Laboratory, also on Long Island. It appears that even in an alternate dimension (something the kids in ‘Stranger Things’ know a lot about…) where the showrunners ran with Montauk as the location, Hawkins Lab was destined to be located in a place that mirrors where a real DOE lab might be.

Building

Due to the secretive nature of Hawkins Lab, it is hidden in a forest, surrounded by a barbed wire fence and heavily guarded by security and police.

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None of these lab complex features could be considered outside of the norm for various DOE labs:

Origin

According to the bits of history peppered in during Season 1 of ‘Stranger Things,’ Hawkins Lab was created in the wake of World War II and the scientific endeavors sponsored by the U.S. government during that time. As was the case during the timeline of the show in the 1980s, Hawkins Lab was formed in secret due to the sensitive nature of the work going on there.

This aspect of Hawkins Lab is probably the most closely mirrored in actual DOE labs. The entire Department of Energy also traces its lineage back to the Second World War and the scientific pursuits of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was the government sponsored effort to create the atomic bomb that ultimately brought World War II to an end. Specifically, DOE worked on the research and development of the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico—present day homes to Oak Ridge National Lab, Hanford Site, and Los Alamos National Lab, respectively. Not only that, but DOE also notes that when the existence of the Manhattan Project and its various sites (accounting for 130,000 workers and $2.2 billion in spending) was made public, it came as a shock that the government was able to run such far-flung secret operations. Hey residents of Hawkins, Indiana, sound familiar?

Mission

While never stated explicitly, much of the subtext and fan speculation of ‘Stranger Things’ pins Hawkins lab as being controlled by the CIA– either with the DOE label as a cover or in tandem with the DOE due to the dubious nature of the operations and what would happen if the public found out. Hawkins is the location of the top secret experiments conducted by the U.S. government. Based on the specific projects we know about (discussed next), the mission of Hawkins appears to be pushing the boundaries of science and the understanding of physics by any (dubious) means necessary.

The mission of each particular DOE lab varies depending on the program office it serves. The 10 labs under the Office of Science support the advancement of “the science needed for revolutionary energy breakthroughs, seek to unravel nature’s deepest mysteries, and provide the Nation’s researchers with the most advanced large-scale tools of modern science.” The three labs under the National Nuclear Security Administration serve the mission of “enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science.” The missions of the remaining four labs include energy efficiency and security, national security, and the environment.

Based on these options, it seems reasonable that the mission of Hawkins Lab lines up with the mission of labs under DOE’s Office of Science—as both are focused on using DOE labs to advance science and solve the physical mysteries of the universe.

Projects

From creation in the 1950’s through the 1970’s, Hawkins was home for Project MKUltra, which exposed human subjects to psychedelic drugs and extreme isolation to test the boundaries of the human mind (the CIA actually did conduct a ring of experiments called MKUltra on that aligns with this type of description, though there was never any indication that the Department of Energy was involved).

One of the test subjects at Hawkins was pregnant while undergoing the experiments of MKUltra, leading to her daughter, who we only know as ‘Eleven’, to be born with telekinetic abilities.  The discovery of her abilities led Eleven to be subject to intense testing and experimentation on those abilities. One discovered ability was to connect with other living creatures when she was placed in sensory deprivation, which the scientists at Hawkins worked to leverage to gain intel on a Russian enemy (the show takes place during the Cold War).

While conducting one of the tests on Eleven to gain access to the Russian enemy, Eleven encountered a mysterious monster-like creature (known in show lore as the Demogorgon) from another dimension, called the Upside Down. This discovery led the scientists to aggressively pursue and continue this line of experimentation on Eleven to gain more information about the Upside Down and the Demogorgon.

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So in short, at Hawkins you have projects dealing with:

  • Human test subjects;
  • Telekinetic powers;
  • Espionage on enemy nations; and
  • Alternative dimensions containing scary monsters.

For the real-life DOE parallels, let’s break that down:

Human test subjects

Unfortunately, this aspect of projects at Hawkins Lab cannot be unequivocally declared to have no parallel to the DOE labs. The truth is that the Atomic Energy Commission, which became the Department of Energy in 1977, has a history of human experimentation. These shady tests dealt with the effects nuclear exposure had on humans, and a Freedom of Information Act inquisition revealed that DOE still to this day provides “healthcare to people in various Pacific Islands affected by nuclear tests.” So again, the origination of the labs and these tests comes from World War II era science, just like we learn is the case for Hawkins Lab.

Telekinetic powers

The development or research into telekinesis is one aspect of the fictional Project MKUltra that does not appear to have any parallel in the DOE lab system. Though this must obviously come with a caveat of—well, if they did have such abilities, would we as the public necessarily know about it yet?

Espionage on enemy nations

If any sort of actual top-secret espionage activity had technology developed by DOE, odds are that information wouldn’t be publicly available and thus would not end up in this article. However, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has billed itself as the ‘real’ Hawkins Lab and is responsible for “certifying the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in a post-nuclear-test-world.”

With their state-of-the-art supercomputers, radiochemistry team, and asteroid defense (too bad this is comparing DOE to ‘Stranger Things’ and not ‘Armageddon’), LLNL boasts that its scientists are responsible for “technical guidance to the policymakers who struck the recent Iran deal, they certify airport security equipment to ensure bad things don’t make it onto planes and they are cyber defenders tasked with thwarting attempts to bring down critical U.S. infrastructure.”

If these are the projects they are telling the public about, its only up to your imagination the types of projects that are considered hush-hush…

Alternative dimensions containing scary monsters

On DOE’s website, they admit that the closest DOE labs come to exploring parallel dimensions is contributing to various NASA technologies (such as nuclear batteries for deep space probes) to explore new worlds in this dimension. In contrast to that message, though, former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz did coyly tell Chelsea Handler on her talk show, when asked about whether DOE explores parallel universes like in ‘Stranger Things,’ that DOE’s support of basic science and theoretical physics “looks at things like higher dimensions than three dimensions, and parallel universes.” However, your mileage may vary on how directly to connect that type of research to Hawkins’ research into the Demogorgon and the Upside Down.

Accolades

In its 40-year history, scientists associated with DOE have been bestowed many awards– including a host of Nobel prizes. Accounting for all of DOE and its predecessor agencies, science and research at DOE and DOE labs have accounted for 115 Nobel Laureates across the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine.

A key characteristic of Hawkins Lab is its intense secretiveness. As such, it is reasonable to assume that most revolutionary projects in the lab, whether the creation of a human with telekinetic powers or the ability to open up a rift to the Upside Down, are not public knowledge to the scientific community and thus have not received the Nobel prizes such discoveries surely would have warranted.

 

 

So if you take all that information in, and line it up side-by-side as I’ve done below, it becomes clear that the distance between real DOE labs and Hawkins Lab is not as far as DOE would want you to believe. But at the very least, we can breathe easy that it does not appear that the parallels that are still in existence today encompass any of the sinister motivations or human rights violations found in Hawkins Lab. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that no future FOIA’s reveal anything sinister, and, if anything, we simply find out that Barb was found safe and sound.

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Is there anything about Hawkins National Lab that I missed? Let me know! Also, I’ll do an update of deemed necessary once I’ve completed my binge of the second season. While everyone else is desperate to learn the fate of Barb, find out more about the Demogorgon, and watch to see if Will makes it out of the Upside Down alive, I’ll be glued to my TV to try and get a peek at the administrative structure of Hawkins Lab and find out which DOE Program Office it falls under! (Update: Read about what season 2 of ‘Stranger Things’ might be saying about DOE’s nuclear past and future!)

Sources and additional reading

A government official confirms the scariest thing in ‘Stranger Things’ may actually be real: Business Insider

Come work at the ‘real’ Hawkins Lab

DOE National Laboratories Map: Department of Energy

Hawkins National Library– Stranger Things Wiki

Honors & Awards: Office of Science

Labs at-a-Glance: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Manhattan Project Background and Information and Preservation Work: Department of Energy

Nuke Lab Can’t Keep Snoops Out

Our Mission: National Nuclear Security Administration

Science at its Best Security at its Worst: Department of Energy

Stranger Things: Netflix Official Site

Stranger Things but true: the US Department of Energy does human experiments, searches for The Upside Down

Stranger Georgetown: Declassified: The Hoya

The Office of Science Laboratories: Department of Energy

The Stranger Things creators want some scares with their Spielberg: AVClub

What “Stranger Things” Didn’t Get Quite-So-Right About the Energy Department: Department of Energy

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

DOE in Focus: Strategic Petroleum Reserve

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), owned by the U.S. federal government and operated by the Office of Fossil Energy within the Department of Energy (DOE), is collectively the largest reserve supply of crude oil in the world. These massive reserves of oil are divided between four storage sites along the Gulf of Mexico.
As the name implies, the SPR exists to provide a strategic fail-safe for the United States, ensuring that oil is reliably available in times of emergency, protecting against foreign threats to cut off trade, minimizing potential impacts of price fluctuations, and more. Understanding the SPR, both its history and its present form, are crucial to recognizing the role it may play in the future and understand the implications of its discussion by politicians.



Origin of the SPR

Initial calls for a stockpiling of emergency crude oil began as early as the 1940s, when Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes advocated for such reserves. The idea continued to be brought up and kicked around through the decades– by the Minerals Policy Commission in 1952, by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, and by the Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control in 1970– but it wasn’t until the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 that the concept of a strategic stockpiling of oil really gained traction.

For a detailed history on the embargo itself, I would recommend reading The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin (who also wrote The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World). But in short, the embargo was due to the United States’ support for Israel in the 1987 Arab-Israeli War. In response, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) (not to be confused with OPEC– the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) imposed an oil embargo on the United States, while also decreasing their overall production. U.S. production on its own was not enough to meet the country’s needs, and even in the rare instances when oil originating from the Arab nations made its way to the United States, it came at a price premium three times higher than before the embargo.

While an existing stockpile of oil would not have prevented the United States from paying the market price for oil, the availability of such reserves would be enough to help mitigate the magnitude of the market price jump. Not only that, but having reserves of oil available would buy the government time to continue diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute before the oil shortage caused more devastating impacts on the national economy. Lastly, having a national reserve of oil would reduce the allure of any oil-exporting nations from using the control of their oil exports as a political tool in the first place, as it would not hold the immediate and impactful sway.
With these goals in mind and to prevent the repetition of the economic impacts felt in the U.S. by the oil embargo, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) in 1975. Among the law’s effects was to declare that the United States would build an oil reserve of up to one billion barrels, owned and operated by the federal government. On July 21, 1977, the first shipment of 412,000 barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia arrived and the SPR was officially open.

Operation of the SPR

Storage

The SPR comprises underground storage facilities at four different locations on the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, with each facility in a hollowed out salt dome. The locations in Texas and Louisiana were chosen because of the existence of the salt domes that have proven to be inexpensive and secure storage options and because the Gulf Coast is the most significant U.S. hub for oil refineries, pipelines, and shipments ports. Additionally, the SPR controls the Northeast Heating Oil Reserve (NEHHOR), which stores up to 2 million barrels of heating oil to ensure the northeast is insulated from emergency interruptions in heating oil during the winter months.
The SPR reserves have a storage capacity of over 713 million barrels, with the active amount of oil stored being enough to cover over 100 days of imports since early 2013.

Drawdowns

As the DOE is an executive agency, the decisions regarding when emergency withdrawals from the SPR are needed are made by the President, as specified in EPCA. According to this authorization, the President is only permitted to direct sales from the SPR if he or she “has found drawdown and sale are required by a severe energy supply interruption or by obligations of the United States under the international energy program” or if an emergency has significantly reduced the worldwide oil supply available and increased the market price of oil in such a way that it would cause “major adverse impact on the national economy.”
In addition to this authorization for full drawdowns, Congress enacted additional authority in 1990 to allow the President to direct a limited drawdowns to resolve internal U.S. disruptions without the need to declare a “severe energy supply interruption” or comply with international energy programs. These limited drawdowns are limited to a maximum of 30 million barrels.  Both full drawdowns and limited drawdowns are limited to the President’s authority.

Other SPR Movements

Outside of these authorities of the President over the SPR, the Energy Secretary also has the authority to direct a test sale of oil from the SPR of up to 5 million barrels. The purpose of these test sales is simply to evaluate the drawdown system of physically removing and transporting the oil from storage, as well as the sales procedure. By law, DOE is required to buy back oil from these test sales within a year.
SPR oil can also be sold through a process known as exchanges, where a company will borrow oil from the SPR to address emergency supply disruptions. The terms of the exchange will include the date by when the company is required to resupply the SPR with the amount of oil it borrowed plus an additional amount of oil as “interest.”
Lastly, Congress can enact laws to authorize additional sales of oil from the SPR. These non-emergency sales are typically to respond to smaller supply disruptions and/or to raise funds for specific reasons, such as the Bipartisan Budget Act authorization to sell a portion of SPR’s oil to pay for modernization of the SPR system and a general fund of the Department of Treasury.

Sales process

Regardless of the authority or reason for it, the oil sold from the SPR is done by competitive sale. The DOE issues a Notice of Sale in the Federal Register, detailing the volume, characteristics, and location of the oil for sale, as well as the procedural information for bidding on that oil. After the official authorization for a sale, it typically takes about two weeks to begin the movement of the oil– which can be moved at up to 4.4 million barrels per day.

Emergency drawdowns in SPR History

Since the embargo of the 1970s, there have been a handful of significant spikes in oil prices and interruptions to the U.S. and world supply caused by international conflict. However, having established U.S. reserves as large as they are has provided a domestic and foreign policy tool during that time.
There have only been three emergency drawdowns in SPR’s history. The first came in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush released 17.3 million barrels of SPR oil for sale to restore stability in world oil markets in response to the Persian Gulf War. In 2005, President George W. Bush called for the second emergency drawdown of SPR supplies, releasing 20.8 million barrels in response to the damage that Hurricane Katrina did to oil production and transportation infrastructure in the Gulf Coast. Most recently President Barack Obama authorized the largest sale by a President yet, releasing 30 million barrels in response to Middle East turbulence and subsequent disruption to the worldwide and U.S. oil supply.

Debate surrounding the SPR

Despite the agreement about the immense negative economic impacts from the oil embargo that prompted the formation of the SPR in the first place, the decisions surrounding the SPR are not without their faire share of critics and controversies.
One notable cause for debate surrounds the meaning of the language in the original authorization, specifically what exactly constitutes a “sever energy supply disruption.” This phrase was initially intended to authorize the SPR to release stocks of oil to resolve discernible, physical shortages of crude oil. However there have been debates about whether to expand that definition– such as the 2011 American Clean Energy and Security Act (which ultimately did not become law) to allow for the SPR to build reserves of additional refined oil products (outside of the already reserved crude oil and heating oil) and use them to mitigate drastic changes in the prices of those products independently of crude oil prices.
Other critics have pointed out that the private stock of inventory in the United States, excluding the SPR, far exceeds the SPR holdings. Some of these people then argue that it would be better to use these private stocks than any government stocks, as the free market would respond in the optimal way to prompt the release of these private stocks. The SPR, on the other hand, is rarely used and is more often positioned as a political tool and thus the role of keeping oil reserved is not one for the federal government, according to these credits
Another critique of the SPR, according to some, is that the government has demonstrated itself as incapable of using the stocks as they should. These critics point to times where oil prices climbed above $100 per barrel, causing significant economic disruption, without the government responding appropriately by releasing SPR oil to mitigate the price jumps. Instead, according to the argument, the markets (and specifically the oil futures market, which was created well after the inception of the SPR) do a better job.
Even as recently as September 2017, in the aftermath of the devastation in the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, President Donald Trump and his Energy Secretary Rick Perry disagreed on the importance of keeping the SPR. While President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal called for selling off half of the oil in the SPR to pay off part of the federal deficit, Secretary Perry said the hurricanes were an example and reminder of why the United States needs the SPR. Worth noting is that the Trump administration did make the decision to send 500,000 barrels from the SPR to a Louisiana refinery in order to shield the economy from higher gas prices.

Future of the SPR

In August 2016, DOE reported to Congress on the state and the long-term strategy of the SPR. The main conclusions of this report included the following:
  • To ensure the stability of the SPR going forward, the infrastructure of the system needs further investment and upkeep;
  • Adding marine terminals is critical to the future ability of the SPR to add barrels to the market in an emergency;
  • The SPR continues to benefit the economy moving forward, and further reductions in the SPR beyond those already authorized would hinder those abilities;
  • If the SPR were to expand in inventory, new storage capacity would need to be developed;
  • Expansion beyond the current four-site configuration of the SPR would violate operational requirements; and
  • Certain improvements to the management and operations of the SPR could be made with limited amendments to EPCA.
However, the debate surrounding the SPR, the U.S. oil markets, and the worldwide energy landscapes are in a constant state of flux, so knowing what will come next for the SPR requires constant attention.

Keeping up with the SPR

If you’re interested in seeing the level of the reserves or watching the movement of oil into and out of the SPR, that information is publicly available to you. The Energy Information Administration’s website will let you look at the historical monthly/annual numbers for SPR stock. Additionally, the SPR website gives updates on the current inventory, broken out by sweet vs. sour crude.

The sale of oil from the SPR is uncommon enough that it will always be a newsworthy event. To be sure you keep up to date on any sales, you can sign up for email updates from the Office of Fossil Energy.  Subscribe to their email list here, making sure to select that you want information on “Petroleum Reserves.”

Sources and additional reading

History of SPR Releases– Office of Fossil Energy

History of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve

New legislation affects U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve– Today in Energy

Long-Term Strategic Review of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve– Report to Congress

Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve (NEHHOR)

Statutory Authority for an SPR Drawdown

Strategic Petroleum Reserve- Office of Fossil Energy

Strategic Petroleum Reserve sales expected to start this month– Today in Energy

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve: History, Perspective, and Issues– Congressional Research Service

 

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.