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Number of foreign visitors on the rise at Oak Ridge lab

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — The number of foreign visitors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory increased significantly in 2013, and China once again dominated the roster with nearly 20 percent of the total visits.

According to information provided by ORNL, 8,311 foreign nationals visited the lab last year. That’s up from 7,706 in 2012 and far more than five years earlier, when the number of foreign visitors barely topped 5,000.

The visitors came from 111 countries in 2013, with China topping the list with 1,646 — almost double the number of visits from India (861), which was second. Other countries in the top 10 included Germany (605), United Kingdom (550), Japan (550), Canada (447), South Korea (401), France (271), Russia (223) and Italy (215).

Most of the visitors are scientists and engineers working on research projects, often in collaboration with their ORNL peers. Many conduct experiments at Oak Ridge facilities, such as the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor.

ORNL is considered an open science lab, with much of the research shared in scientific literature, but visits by foreign nationals must go through an approval process. There are background checks and other requirements for visitors from countries on Department of Energy’s sensitive countries list — such as China, India and Russia. Escorts are required, and there are some areas at the lab that are entirely off-limits to non-U.S. citizens.

The strong presence of China, a rising leader in the science world, is of particular interest because of growing allegations of cyber espionage against U.S. companies. Earlier this month, the Justice Department gained indictments against five Chinese military officials, accusing them of hacking into or attempting to hack into computer systems of U.S. companies — such as Westinghouse and Alcoa — for commercial gain.

China was also suspected of being behind a disruptive cyber attack on ORNL systems in 2011.

Last year, after cybersecurity firm Mandiant released a report implicating China in some of the espionage events, ORNL Director Thom Mason said the alleged activities could start to impact relationships.

“I think one of the messages to China coming out of the recent attention on this topic is that the level of activity has reached a point where there are starting to be consequences for the relationships with government and industry in the U.S.,” Mason stated.

Asked this week if there had been any impacts to date, the ORNL chief said there had been some recent changes to tighten the approval process on cooperative agreements between U.S. labs and foreign entities. He referred questions about the details to DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C., but the initial response did not provide any insight on the changes.

ORNL spokesman David Keim said the lab currently has three memorandums of understanding with Chinese institutions, two of them with the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Plasma Physics. The other is with China’s National Energy Conservation Center. That working agreement also includes Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.

“As with any of ORNL’s international science collaborations, all information ORNL shares with China is nonproprietary in nature and within the public domain,” Keim said. “Our objective is to build a cooperative relationship.”

Four previous MOUs between ORNL and Chinese institutions have expired since 2010, he said.

China has topped the list of foreign visitors every year since the News Sentinel began tracking the visits to the national lab in 2007.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector last fall criticized ORNL for not adequately keeping tabs on foreign nationals while visiting the lab. The audit report said Oak Ridge hosts did not maintain contact with foreign scientists throughout their visits, a step that’s required so that details of the visitors’ work — and their technical competency — can be reported to the DOE Counterintelligence Office. The report also noted that when ORNL’s designated hosts weren’t able to be with foreign visitors, the lab didn’t designate alternate hosts to take over those duties.

The report did not find any evidence that foreign visitors obtained any information to which they were not entitled, and ORNL promised to carry out recommendations. In response to questions, Keim said there had been improvements since the IG report.

“We’ve further strengthened our program by improving software used to assign hosts, limiting access to more buildings, and updating training for escorts,” he said.

China, a rapidly expanding power in science and technology, is the world’s most populous country, which help explains the big visitation numbers.

Mason noted that Germany probably has more visits to Oak Ridge on a per capita basis.

The ORNL director also explained that many of the visits to the laboratory come from foreign nationals are graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or faculty members at U.S. universities. He previously noted that many of these visitors may elect to stay in the United States, create companies or otherwise make their careers.
 

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