The University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) has seen it all when it comes to the nuclear complex on which it sits.

Lab researchers were already at the Savannah River Site when the first of five nuclear reactors went critical and began production. They were watching throughout the 1950s and ’60s when the plant raced to churn out nuclear material to help fuel America’s arms-race with the Soviet Union. They were watching, too, during the 1980s when the site changed course, moving away from nuclear production and towards the lengthy process of cleaning up radioactive waste, the debris and shrapnel of the Cold War.

The lab’s unique existence as an academic research facility on a government nuclear complex contributed heavily to its international stature as a leader both in the field of radiation ecology and for its role as an environmental steward watching over the nuclear work being conducted.

Now, as SRS prepares to help lead the nation into its next nuclear phase — dubbed the “nuclear renaissance” by industry advocates — the lab will no longer be watching. Federal budget cuts will force the independent research facility to shut its doors, even as massive amounts of high-level weapons-grade nuclear waste are brought into South Carolina and stored on-site. The storied lab will be gone, and with it some of the world’s most-revered ecologists who have long served as the first-line of defense against potential ecological disaster.

At some point next year, the last remaining scientists will leave the one-story brick building that has been the lab’s home since 1951 and, for the first time in more than half a century, one of the nation’s largest nuclear weapons and materials processing complexes will finally have some privacy.

Nuclear waste. More nuclear waste

There are currently millions of gallons of radioactive waste being stored at the Savannah River Site — located just outside of Aiken, S.C. — with more on the way. In the coming months construction will begin on a new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel facility that, once completed, will blend weapons-grade plutonium with uranium to create a fuel capable of being burned in commercial reactors. That process will involve bringing even more waste — an estimated 34 metric tons more — into the state to be stored at the site until the process can be completed.

“If ever a state’s populace needed assurances that radioactive material was not detrimental to human health and the environment, South Carolina is that state,” Karen Patterson says, or more specifically, writes. Like all great bureaucratic battles involving cooperative agreements, budget miscommunication, and congressional investigations, much of this one is told on paper.

Patterson is a member of the SRS citizen advisory board and a former SREL employee. A vocal supporter of the ecology laboratory during its current, and previous, budgetary struggles, Patterson wrote to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford urging him to join the growing political ranks that have come forward in support of the lab.

“With cause, citizens are skeptical of information provided by DOE because the Department’s spin is always positive and the negatives are hidden in obfuscating language and generalities,” Patterson told Sanford.

Like many that support the lab, Patterson is not anti-nuclear. Instead, she believes the continued existence of SREL is crucial if the department is to justify their assertions that both the current and future work being done on the site is safe.

“Legitimate or not, most people fear all things nuclear,” she writes. “The presence of SREL provides the assurance these people are seeking,” In the past, when anti-nuclear citizen groups such as the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and Nuclear Watch South released reports condemning the site for releasing unsafe amounts of pollution, department officials have always had an easy response.

“The lab really does wonders for the site,” says Mal McKibben, executive director of the Aiken-based Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, a retired nuclear scientist, and a proponent of all things nuclear. “When someone levels (environmental) criticism against them, they can just point to the lab.”

Death by a thousand cuts

Last month, University of Georgia officials cut more than half of the SREL staff and finally announced what many at the lab had long feared: Once current grant-based work is completed, the 56-year-old lab will close for good.

The announcement might have come from UGA, but the decision was not entirely the university’s own. The lab had long received the bulk of its infrastructure funding from the Department of Energy (DOE). While the official word might have been handed down in June, the fate of the research facility had seemingly been decided months, if not years, prior.

In 2005, the department had proposed eliminating all of SREL’s $7.7 million budget. Before the cuts became official Congress stepped in to preserve the lab, but was able to secure only $4.5 million, leading to a third of the staff being shown the door.

While fearful that the end was near, the lab’s director, Dr. Paul Bertsch (who has since resigned from the post) was assured by local Department of Energy officials that the ecology lab would receive at least $4 million in funding when the next agreement between the department and the university was signed in 2006.

Those promises never materialized. By the time the agreement was finalized, the lab’s budget had been drastically reduced for this year, and eliminated completely moving forward. The past several years have been “an extremely frustrating experience — it’s been demoralizing,” Dr. Bertsch said at the time. “Our workforce has gone through this for the past three years. They can’t be expected to go through this time and time again and continue to be productive.”

What Bertsch did not know then, or at least what he did not say, was that he was right. Neither the department nor the university expected SREL to remain productive.

A call to arms

Proponents of SREL told anyone that would listen that the cut in funding would be the end of the lab. While researchers were still eligible for a variety of federal and private grants to fund their work, without DOE money to keep the infrastructure in place, the lab was doomed, they said.

Concerned citizens, politicians, and organizations attempted to rally to the lab’s defense. In a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, former President Jimmy Carter pleaded SREL’s case. “The costs of operating SREL traditionally have been borne by the DOE and UGA, but the benefits of the laboratory’s research, education, and community outreach extend far beyond,” he wrote.

In the same letter he urged Bodman to “reach across traditional political boundaries” to solve the funding crisis, saying that doing so would “ensure that the federal government and the DOE meet their responsibilities to guarantee that SRS activities do not negatively impact the environment or the lives of Georgia and South Carolina citizens.”

While Carter was the most high-profile politician defending the lab, he was not alone in calling on the department to restore funding. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) all co-signed their own letter to Bodman, calling on the department to “honor its commitment” to the lab and the region.

Joining the senators from both sides of the Savannah River was Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), a long-time supporter of the lab. “The fact that SREL is an independent academic laboratory provides significant credibility among the general public and regulators on issues related to environmental impacts of nuclear facility operations, as well as the overall health of SRS ecosystems,” wrote Rep. Barrow.

More importantly, the lab’s plight had come to the attention of two congressional subcommittee chairmen in the weeks that preceded Carter’s public plea on behalf of SREL. In May, Rep. Brad Miller (D–N.C.) and Rep. Nick Lampson (D–Texas) launched a formal investigation into what they saw as, at best, a questionable decision by the department.

“The lab plays an indispensable role in tracking the environmental conditions around the Savannah River Site and providing unbiased information to the public and the government about conditions there,” the congressmen wrote to Secretary Bodman.

The timing of the department’s decision, along with the relatively small amount of money being denied to the lab, only made it that much more bewildering to the two members of the House Committee on Science and Technology. “We are unsure of why and how the decision was made to terminate the Department’s support for the facility,” they wrote. “It is particularly difficult to understand in the light of the Department beginning the on-site treatment and processing of” such large amounts of radioactive waste.

The congressmen requested that the department turn over any and all records relating to the decision-making process concerning the lab, and to make high-ranking officials available to speak with the committee.

“Everyone signed off on the terms”

Officials within the department have held steadfastly to their version of events, even in the face of the congressional inquiry.

“We have told the University of Georgia and SREL leadership what we’re planning to fund and when, and we continue to fulfill our stated commitments,” DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said in regards to the congressmen’s request for continued funding for the lab until their investigation was completed. “We have an agreement in place, and everyone signed off on its terms.”

While the Energy Department has taken the brunt of the public outburst over the lab’s closure, it does have one thing that it can — and repeatedly does — point to: the signed contract with UGA spelling out the lab’s funding, or lack thereof. Signed at the end of 2006, the cooperative agreement makes the Department’s wishes for the lab to become self-sustaining clear.

University officials signed off on the agreement, implying that they were, at least, complicit in the decision. The agreement’s implications, along with DOE accusations that university officials had failed to come prepared to a meeting to discuss an alternative future for the lab, were enough for the congressional investigation to increase in scope to include UGA records.

The politics of bureaucracy

Despite more than five decades of ecological study and instruction conducted at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, the academic and research facility’s final lesson might very well belong to a softer science: Politics.

While the House science committee’s investigation began in May, it has yet to be completed. Due to an overwhelmingly large amount of records turned over to the committee, a hearing scheduled for the end of June was pushed back. No new date has been set and, even if it were to be held at the end of this month, the hearing could do little to rescue the lab from its fate.

A week after UGA officials announced the closure of SREL, they also announced the birth of a new ecology center, this one on the university’s Athens campus. While much of the academic work might very well be salvaged, lab researchers’ role as an environmental watchdog at SRS has been sacrificed.

As for who or what will take over in the lab’s stead at SRS, department officials have said that they will hire contractors and conduct studies “as the need arises.” That will be a far cry from the independent oversight that had been in place, according to Patterson.

“More than one person has accurately described this as having the fox guard the hen house.”

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