[ RadSafe ] Savannah River Lab to Close After DOE Cuts Its Funding
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Wed May 30 14:54:36 CDT 2007
Vol. 316. no. 5827, p. 969
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News of the Week ECOLOGY:
Savannah River Lab to Close After DOE Cuts Its FundingEli Kintisch Researchers from around the world have come to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) near Aiken, South Carolina, since 1951 to study how nuclear waste can affect habitats and wild populations of bacteria, fish, and reptiles. But this month, the Department of Energy (DOE) lowered the budget ax after deciding that those efforts were "not in line" with the agency's needs in waste management. Now U.S. ecologists are preparing for the demise of the lab itself and the potential layoffs of its 100-member staff, 10 of whom are faculty members at the University of Georgia, Athens, which operates the facility. The verdant, 803-km2 Savannah River Site is a multibillion-dollar cleanup area that holds some 140 million liters of Cold War-era high-level weapons waste. It affords one of the largest fenced-in area east of the Mississippi River for ecological studies. SREL's work, says radioecologist F. Ward
Whicker of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, "has demonstrated time and again how nuclear activities can be made compatible with maintenance of a high degree of environmental quality." Two years ago, the lab managed to fend off DOE's attempt to shut it down (Science, 25 March 2005, p. 1857). But this year, after DOE pared back funding to $1.8 million from an expected $4 million, lab officials said they would need to close its doors at the end of the month. "We're all shocked," says ecologist H. Ronald Pulliam of the University of Georgia, Athens. The lab, which got $4.5 million from DOE last year, also receives outside funding, although the extent of that support is under dispute. Last month, DOE said there was "very little evidence" that SREL had sought such funds. But lab director Paul Bertsch says SREL scientists have obtained $5.4 million in multiyear contracts since 2005 and are currently pitching some $15 million in grant proposals to various sources.
DOE and the lab also disagree about the nature of this year's funding. Bertsch says that DOE gave him "verbal agreements" to maintain funding levels. But a DOE spokesperson says no, adding that an internal review of SREL's ongoing studies--including studies of wetlands restoration efforts, metal contaminants, and woodpecker and fish species--compelled the department to limit funds to what had already been spent. Founded by legendary ecologist Eugene Odum, SREL plays the role of "watchdog" of DOE's Savannah River cleanup, says ecologist Vincent Burke, an editor at Johns Hopkins University Press. Research at the site showed DOE how to save billions in cleanup costs by demonstrating that a contaminated lake habitat could survive without being dredged (Science, 12 March 2004, p. 1615). Other studies have looked at how ash from coal plants, which DOE uses to produce power on the site, affects their surroundings. Hot zone. A budget crunch has doomed jobs at the
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, whose researchers are shown here sampling radioactive soil. CREDIT: SAVANNAH RIVER ECOLOGY LABORATORY
Outside researchers who prize SREL's facilities worry that the closure will undermine a broad swath of basic ecology work. Avian ecologist Gary Hepp of Auburn University in Alabama, for example, is studying how incubation practices among wood ducks on the site affect development of their young, using a grant from the National Science Foundation. "It's isolated; you don't have people interfering with your sites [or] equipment," says Hepp, noting that SREL staff facilitate access to the heavily guarded Savannah wilderness. Bertsch is now trying to dispose of lab chemicals and transfer some of the animals on the site. He fears that time will run out, however, before he can raise enough money to continue operations.
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