Idaho National Laboratory is a unique and diverse place. Not only is INL the nation’s lead nuclear energy research and development laboratory, but it also is a world leader in broader clean energy R&D and the effort to protect and make more resilient the nation’s critical infrastructure against man-made and natural threats.

It takes an incredible number of moving parts to ensure that the lab functions well. Behind the globally recognized science and research are the leaders and game-changers with the vision and talent to solve our world’s most complex problems. 

This month, I am featuring Dr. John Wagner, who directs nuclear energy research, development and demonstration at the laboratory.

Dr. Wagner earned a bachelor’s degree from Missouri University of Science and Technology and his master’s and doctorate degrees from Pennsylvania State University.

He worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for nearly 17 years, joining INL in 2016 as the chief scientist at the Materials and Fuels Complex.

He and his wife, Stephanie, live in Idaho Falls. They have six children.

Amy Lientz: What is your day job?

John Wagner: Associate laboratory director, Nuclear Science and Technology directorate at Idaho National Laboratory. Our vision is to change the world’s energy future by advancing nuclear energy. Every day, I have the privilege of working with some of the most talented engineers and scientists in the world.


AL: Explain to the average person, “Why is your job important?”

JW: Energy is essential to our quality of life. Nuclear energy provides approximately 20 percent of our nation’s total electricity, accounting for about 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the U.S. As the lead laboratory for nuclear energy, our research to advance nuclear energy is critically important to our economy, environment and national security, as well as to advance U.S. leadership in nuclear technology.


AL: What first interested you in a career in nuclear?

JW: Physics — and particularly the enormous energy associated with nuclear fission.


AL: What is the most exciting project you are working on today?   

JW: Microreactors. These are small, transportable reactors that will power remote communities and military bases and could potentially save lives following a natural disaster that disrupts power generation. These small reactors could change the future of nuclear energy.


AL: What is the biggest challenge you face today?  

JW: Simply keeping up with all the exciting research and development activities going on at the laboratory involving nuclear. These are truly exciting times at the laboratory that remind us of our origin as the National Reactor Testing Station, where 52 different reactors have been demonstrated here since 1949.


AL: How do you overcome that?

JW: Hire, develop and empower highly talented people. It’s all about the people.


AL: Why is it so important to extend the lives of America’s nuclear reactor fleet?

JW: Because the current fleet (99 nuclear power plants) represents an approximately $1 trillion national asset that has a lot more to offer in terms of safe, carbon-free energy production for the nation.


AL: INL has been announced to be the location of choice to build the world’s first small modular nuclear reactor. This is a big deal for INL, but how is it also a big deal for Eastern Idaho?

JW: Clean energy and high-tech, high-paying jobs, as well as national and international visibility for advanced technology leadership.


AL: How does this technology help our environment?

JW: A source of clean, carbon-free energy that could replace up to three coal plants in the region.


AL: INL famously is the place where 52 original nuclear reactors were built and operated. What role does INL have in the development of the next generation of nuclear reactors, including microreactors? 

JW: INL supports the full gamut of nuclear reactor research, development and demonstration, from fundamental understanding of nuclear fuels and materials’ performance, to development of advanced technologies and capabilities, such as advanced computational capabilities for design and safety analyses, to providing a site and supporting infrastructure for advanced reactor demonstrations. We plan to demonstrate several reactors on the Site in the next five to 10 years.


AL:What tools does the nation’s lead nuclear R&D laboratory need in order to make this happen?  

JW: We need a fast neutron-spectrum test reactor and strong federal and local support for the reactor projects at the laboratory.


AL: What do you say to people concerned about spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors?

JW: We have sound technical solutions for safe and secure storage, transportation and geologic disposal. The issue is one of politics, not technical.

AL: Or the costs of nuclear energy?  

JW: I’m also concerned about the costs. That’s why research is so focused on reducing the construction and operating costs of new reactors, and why we’re working with industry to reduce operating costs at the nation’s current reactor fleet.


AL: Is a career in nuclear still viable? What type of jobs would you encourage our younger population to take in nuclear?

JW: Absolutely viable. I’d encourage them to get involved in the next-generation nuclear projects, such as microreactors, and help to define the future of nuclear energy.

Amy Lientz is director of the Partnerships, Engagement and Technology Deployment for Idaho National Laboratory. Her organization is responsible for governmental affairs, technology transfer, economic and workforce development, university programs, STEM and Public Affairs, and community giving. A favorite part of her job is to interact with engineers and scientists who innovate, create and solve big problems, and then share their success stories with others to help inspire more discovery. For more information and success stories, go to