The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) in Aiken, SC was established in 1951 by University of Georgia with funding from the Atomic Energy Commission. Its mission was to study the effects of the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons facility on the surrounding environment.
Today there are four research groups: Advanced Analytical Center for Environmental Sciences, Ecological Stewardship, Ecotoxicology, and Radioecology. They approach their research from a standpoint of characterization of contaminated sites, the study of ecological risks and effects, and research into remediation and restoration of contaminated sites.
The Radioecology group studies the effects of radioactive contaminants on humans and the environment. According to the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board
SREL should be considered a national ecological laboratory and its services used across the DOE-complex. Since the early 1950's, SREL has compiled an extensive database, documentation and research on radiation ecology and the effects to the environment, specifically related to impacts from nuclear weapons related production. Such information is essential to the operation and closure of all DOE sites.
SREL is recognized as a world leader in radiation ecology and provides unprecedented training for future scientists and engineers in this field. Radiation ecology is a multidisciplinary science that uses nuclear physics, chemistry, biology, toxicology, ecology and risk analyses to predict the effects of radioactive contaminants on humans and the environment."
And what better place to study the effects of radioactive contaminants than the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons facility, which was designated in 1989 as an EPA Superfund Site, and cleanup is still underway even as more plutonium was being moved there from around the country for storage. That same year, DOE outsourced operations at the Savannah River Site to the Washington Group International, a Boise, Idaho based engineering company.
Now, the DOE has cut SREL's funding, and the lab is facing closure. According to the SREL Citizen's Advisory Board:
Last year (FY2006), the DOE cut the funding to $4 million from $7.78 million, resulting in a staff reduction of approximately 60 personnel at SREL. Recent newspaper articles, report that SREL expected $4.5 million this year (FY2007) based on discussions with DOE, but DOE officials have cut this amount to $1 million. Officials at SREL thought an agreement had been worked out to receive the $4.5 million for FY2007; however, the plan derailed. The DOE has been encouraging SREL to seek other sources of funding from other federal agencies and nonfederal sources to continue their work at SRS. While SREL has obtained some funding from other sources, in the past the DOE provides the majority of funding. If funding is not restored to $4.5 million, SREL will close.
The SRS CAB understood that the SREL mission was redefined and that a new Cooperative Agreement was to be signed between UGA and DOE to provide funding at the $4.5 million level for FY2007 and future years. The SRS CAB finds it reprehensible that DOE would renege on such an agreement. Finding other sources of funding for the budget shortfall at this late date will be extremely difficult and the SRS CAB original concerns expressed at the time of last year's budget cuts about significant loss of expertise will be realized. The SRS CAB would support funding the SREL from a variety of resources.
Congressman John Barrow of Georgia (D-Savannah) recently wrote the DOE urging them to restore SREL's funding:
Current plans are to leave significant quantities of radioactive and non-radioactive waste at the SRS, purportedly in a stable form. While I am not in the position to evaluate or comment on the potential long-term environmental issues surrounding these "stabilized" waste forms I am in a position to say that the SREL is an invaluable partner in helping us deal with these issues. A recent National Research Council report published by the National Academy of Sciences has raised doubts concerning proposed strategies over the hundreds to thousands of years required for the radioactive materials to decay. Because the SRS sits on top of a major aquifer and next to one of the most important major rivers in the southeast, it's my responsibility to ensure that my constituents, as well as others in the southeastern United States, are protected by DOE's waste disposition plans.
That's why it is critical to have an independent and credible source of information on how these plans will affect the environment. In addition to its ongoing research activities at the Savannah River Site, SREL is the organization that has the expertise, institutional memory, and academic credibility to develop and implement a long-term monitoring plan that will be accepted and trusted by the general public, regulators, and other stakeholders.
Steve Smith from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy praised Rep. Barrow for his efforts to restore the lab's funding:
"We applaud Congressman John Barrow's determination and resolve to restore funding to this important research facility," Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said. "The communities and surrounding environment in both Georgia and South Carolina stand to lose if the funding for the Savannah River Ecology Lab is not restored. As we face an increase of nuclear-related missions at the Savannah River Site along with the continued critical effort of cleaning up of this contaminated site, we need to have more research, not less, on how this area is being affected."
Unfortunately, the Aiken Standard newspaper reports that no alternative funding is forthcoming:
Despite repeated warnings from concerned citizens, scientists, and a United States congressman that the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory will be forced to close due to a lack of funding, Savannah River Site officials have yet to offer any possible alternatives to replace the environmental stewardship that would be lost by the independent facility's closure.
"I can't speak to issues related to closure - that is not the Department of Energy's decision," said DOE Spokesperson Julie Peterson when reached for comment Monday afternoon. She said that she was unaware of any discussions in the Department regarding what would be done in the event that SREL does close.
The article has more background on the controversy, noting again that new projects being proposed for the site make the SREL's mission more critical than ever before.