In the late 1940's, the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy selected an isolated U.S. Navy weapons test range in the Upper Snake River Plain of Idaho as the site for a nuclear research facility. The mission of the site was to develop peaceful applications of nuclear energy -- primarily the generation of electricity. In 1952, the Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 produced the world's first commercial electricity by lighting the nearby town of Arco. Further research has produced many nuclear applications to medicine, and to nuclear and chemical waste management.
The Field Research Division began at the National Reactor Testing Station in 1948 as a Weather Bureau Research Station, a part of the Special Projects Section of the U.S. Weather Bureau. The initial objective was to describe the meteorology and climatology of the NRTS. The focus was on protecting the health and safety of site workers and nearby residents. The first studies were aimed at learning micro-meteorological behavior, e.g., how meteorology effected iodine deposition and subsequent uptake into the food chain, and how to quantify nuclear radiation doses.
Early attempts to accurately describe atmospheric behavior around the site were frustrated by a lack of knowledge of atmospheric transport and dispersion processes, which was further compounded by a lack of observations and data. The initial objective of description evolved into one of developing the technology necessary to observe and understand the boundary layer of the atmosphere. By the late 1950's, the Division was developing tetroon technology to conduct Lagrangian experiments of air flow and dispersion. Tetroons, quasi-constant volume (about 1 m3) mylar balloons that follow isentropic surfaces, were released and tracked by radar with Division-developed miniature transponders. The Division's data were in high demand by other researchers in the Weather Bureau. Soon, other agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission, signed on to participate in experiments to acquire unique data sets in specialized studies. The technology quickly migrated to experiments along sea coasts where sea-land breezes were studied, to mountain valleys where nocturnal drainage and daytime heating-induced flows were studied, and on to large cities to study urban heat island effects.
By the 1960's, the Division had earned a reputation as developers and implementers of atmospheric tracer technology. Experiments were devised using fluorescent dyes such as methyl iodide. The technology eventually expanded to include fluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.
The small network of meteorological stations of the 1950's was expanded for more frequent, closely spaced data over the Idaho National Laboratory (formerly the NRTS). Better resolution data allowed Division scientists to develop transport and diffusion models. In particular, one of the earliest-known puff dispersion models (a forerunner of the current MDIFF model used at the INL for a wide range of emergency planning, emergency response, and dose reconstruction applications) was developed by FRD. The use of Division data by other modelers and the development of its own puff model brought the group in close contact with the modeling community. The current 33 station mesonet was designed and constructed in the 1990's.
By the mid-70's, the Division was a major participant in experiments ranging from building wake studies to continental scale transport. A series of studies of aircraft wake vortices for the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration were begun in the 1970's, adding another dimension to the Division's micrometeorological expertise.
The Division was an early pioneer in adapting electron capture technology to measure perfluorocarbon and sulfur-hexafluoride tracers. The currently-used modern whole air sampler was designed and tested in the 1980's. In the 1990's, the Division further developed continuous tracer measurement techniques to accompany whole air sampling. This technology has been adapted to a wide range of mobile platforms, from vans to aircraft to boats. Laboratory analyses, data management, and results presentation have been automated to where 24-hour turnaround is possible after each day's field collection. This allows for nearly realtime quality control of data processes.
Field Research Division support to the Department of Energy and its contractors has expanded over the years from a narrow health and safety focus to one which covers a full range of activities involving state, local, tribal, and contractor organizations. Climatological studies, most recently a study of excessive precipitation return periods, provide the basis for construction design and planning. Routine daily and special criteria forecasts based on a solid knowledge of Snake River Plain meteorology are used for operational planning on and around the INL. Division meteorologists staff the DOE Emergency Operations Center to interpret meteorological conditions and model descriptions during emergencies, such as the devastating range fires of 1996. Meteorological conditions, based on archived data, are tailored to emergency-specific exercise requirements for the EOC using the same INLVIZ display system which communicates 33-station mesonet data, forecasts and advisories to over two dozen INL client workstations.
In the late 1990's and early 2000's, the Division acquired another research dimension with the change of Division directors. Thus began FRD's expertise in airborne geosciences research with a sophisticated set of research grade instruments mounted on a Rutan-designed Long-EZ. The aircraft was used extensively to study air-surface exchanges over wide areas, which helped contribute to our knowledge of CO2 transport and fate. Leadership at FRD helped to establish an international group of geoscientists interested in collaborating on atmospheric research with small aircraft. Spinoffs from the Long-EZ, have been applied, for example, to the understanding of hurricane turbulence measured by specially modified aircraft and ground-based platforms.
Much of FRD's success is attributable to its leadership. For more than 30 years, the Division was directed by C. Ray Dickson with the assistance of G. E. "Gene" Start. More recently, Dr. Timothy Crawford served as director from 1998 until his untimely demise in 2003. Dr. Kirk Clawson served as acting director and director from 2003 until he retired at the end of 2016. Dr. Richard Eckman served as acting director from January 2017 until he retired in March 2019. The current acting director is Walt Schalk.
The Field Research Division has been described as technology and idea rich. This foundation is being used to expand emergency planning and response support to the Department of Energy, launch new research into hurricane turbulence, and to refine chemical and smart balloon tracer technology.