Known for Its Freedom, Unique Nuclear Lab Faces Closure

It seems far-fetched that a heavily guarded government complex where scientists spent decades producing materials for nuclear weapons has also become a playground for environmentalists.

AIKEN, South Carolina -- It seems far-fetched that a heavily guarded government complex where scientists spent decades producing materials for nuclear weapons has also become a playground for environmentalists.

Here, at the Savannah River Site, researchers have been free since 1951 to test the environmental impact of man's most dangerous developments.

More than 3,000 scientific papers have been written by Savannah River Ecology Laboratory researchers who study the effect of toxic radiation on wildlife, the affects of acid pools on the ecosystem, and other possibilities both wonkish and wild.

And over the years, the lab has become a rare independent voice on the secretive U.S. Energy Department campus, where scientists long celebrated their freedom to disclose their findings without sending them first to government officials.

But the lab may pay the price for its freedom. It's in danger of losing its vaunted foothold on the 300-square-mile (777-square-kilometer) site as a funding crisis threatens to cripple its operations after May 31. The lab's budget is being slashed from around $4.5 million (euro3.3 million) to about $1.8 million (euro1.3 million), and there's no commitment for federal funding beyond Dec. 1.

The cut has director Paul Bertsch and other researchers wondering why the federal government would target the only independent lab dedicated to studying how nuclear energy affects the ecosystem at a time when the Bush administration is pushing a nuclear renaissance.

"There's a complete disconnect there," Bertsch said.

The Energy Department said the cuts should come as no shock. It said it was adhering to an agreement brokered last year with the University of Georgia, which operates the lab, that encourages the lab to seek outside funding.

"This agreement was signed by both parties," said spokeswoman Julie Peterson. "It is what it is."

The lab has stood out for its independence since its founding in 1951 by Eugene Odum, the University of Georgia professor considered by many in the scientific community as the father of modern ecology.

Researchers working at other Energy Department sites must often submit their work to government bureaucrats before publication, but Bertsch said his lab's free rein has allowed it to offer sharp, objective criticism -- sometimes, to the embarrassment of federal officials.

In one case, a 1981 cover story of the BioScience journal detailed how discharged heated water from the site's nuclear reactors devastated forests miles away.

"It's an independent, unbiased, uncensored reporting system," said Whit Gibbons, a researcher who co-authored the report and who has worked at the lab for 39 years.

Gibbons and other staffers said they consider themselves scientists first, but watchdogs a close second.

"What we do gives the community some sense of comfort, some sense of security," said Chris Romanek, an associate professor of geology.

The Savannah River complex was built during the Cold War to support the nation's nuclear weapons program. Eventually five nuclear reactors were up and running, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the site's mission has transformed from producing weapons-grade materials to cleaning up nuclear waste.

The federally protected land, which is ringed by security checkpoints and guard gates, has another advantage: While polluted streams offer an endless array of research possibilities, so do the untouched creeks crisscrossing the "Green Emerald" -- a nickname the mostly pristine forest and wetlands site earned from its satellite footprint.

Yet the site's curator began to crack down in 2005, when the Energy Department proposed slashing the lab's entire $7.7 million (euro5.7 million) budget. Congress intervened and restored about $4.5 million, but Bertsch still had to fire 50 employees -- about a third of his staff.

The latest cuts will go deeper and Bertsch is considering whether to fire all but six of the lab's 110 employees.

The Energy Department hinted the lab is being targeted because its mission does not match up with government priorities.

Any proposed work conducted by the lab "must further the mission of the department and they must provide greater information that enables the DOE to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars," said an April letter from James Rispoli, the department's assistant secretary for environmental management.

U.S. Rep. John Barrow, the Democrat who represents the University of Georgia, has been one of the lab's most vocal political supporters.

"This is the only lab that does this," he said. "They're carrying the burden for the entire energy community. If Congress is serious about investing in nuclear energy, we have to invest in the research that makes nuclear energy safe and sustainable."

U.S. Reps. Brad Miller and Nick Lampson, who chair subcommittees of the House Committee on Science and Technology, sent a letter Wednesday criticizing the funding cuts and demanding the Energy Department turn over documents that could detail the negotiations over its future.

Other backers have also begun to push back. They've started a "Save SREL" Web site, highlighting the achievements of its researchers. Lab staff also has promoted how its environmental outreach programs have reached thousands of students and adults through public talks, workshops, exhibits and tours.

One of the favorite features of the lab is a gated area filled with rare animals, a strange sort of petting zoo locked deep within a nuclear complex where the lab uses its extra space to house animals as part of its outreach program. There are brightly colored snakes, giant fish, even a three-legged alligator called Stumpy. (Experiments are not conducted on the animals.)

Tracey Tuberville, a research coordinator, sighed after she showed off a baby gopher turtle relocated to the site after its home in south Georgia was destroyed.

"We have programs that can only be done here," she said.


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