SRS and research on environment

NEWS

SRS and research on environment

Karen Patterson
Special to the Aiken Standard

Feb 4, 2012

If enacted, a bill passed by the House of Representatives and pending in the Senate (H.R. 2729) would designate the Savannah River Site and five other DOE sites as National Environmental Research Parks. The value of designating SRS as a National Environmental Research Park, and the impact such a designation would have on the Site’s current and future missions is being debated locally and in Washington. Much of the debate centers on whether a statutory designation of NERP would preclude the SRS from hosting an energy park. At present, DOE’s energy park concept is still just that – a concept. Although DOE has not defined what an energy park would be, given the history of industrial activities and research at SRS, it is likely that an energy park at SRS would be some combination of power generation and research with a focus on research into alternative sustainable energy sources, including nuclear energy. A NERP designation for the SRS would in no way limit the possibilities of an energy park as SRS. Rather, locating an energy park within a NERP would provide an opportunity for tremendous synergy. The energy park and NERP components could draw on complementary pools of scientists. Sometimes overlooked is the fact that SRS has been a NERP since 1972. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the United States turned to addressing the actual and potential harm associated with unregulated hazardous discharges to water and air, both on the natural world, and on human health. As a nation, we realized the critical need for research on the effects of these discharges to our water and air because by the 1960s it was apparent we were poisoning our nest. Out of that realization were born the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and National Environmental Research Parks, among others. NERPs originally were charged with assessing the environmental impacts of energy and nuclear weapons production, exploring methods to minimize those impacts, training environmental scientists and educating the public. The NERP Charter later was expanded from this original focus to include monitoring and assessing the environmental impacts of human activities, developing methods to predict environmental responses to industrial activities, demonstrating the impact of various activities and evaluating methods to minimize those impacts, training environmental scientists, and educating the public on environmental issues. Therefore, a NERP requires industrial development to fulfill its stated objectives of determining impacts of development on natural systems. Since 1972 the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, the U.S. Forest Service and the Savannah River National Laboratory successfully have pursued each of the NERP objectives and contributed to our knowledge of the impacts of industrial activities on our human environment. As a result, we know, for example, how contaminants move through our soils and groundwater, how animals (including humans) take up the contaminants and what effects the contaminants have on biological systems. We know how to assess human and ecological risks associated with industrial discharges, and how to remediate adverse impacts. We have developed systems to avoid or minimize releases to the environment, to contain or treat releases when they happen, and to protect biological systems from the worst consequences of such releases. The SRS research facilities have educated generations of scientists and engineers and have given school children, their teachers and parents, the opportunity to learn about ecology in fun and exciting ways. All this and much more was done in parallel with the production and disposal of nuclear materials and without limiting the SRS’s primary mission of national security. SRS has a well deserved international reputation as a place where scientists continue to break new ground in all aspects of environmental protection. SRS’s designation as a NERP in 1972 is one of the reasons it is an outstanding center for ecological and environmental research. The idea of an energy park is not new, either. It was put forward as early as 1976 by Dr. Eugene Odum of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Ecology, and Dr. Roger Kroodsma of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Their concept was that if we could design industrial processes that generated significantly less poisonous and non-biodegradable wastes, natural systems could be used to attenuate the impacts of the more benign wastes, and as a by- product of this process, produce energy. Drs. Odum and Kroodsma considered the SRS the ideal site to test such a theory. Forty years later, the world is facing another environmental crisis – this one involving the ubiquitous use of fossil fuels and associated climate change. For the first time in its 30-year history DOE has a Nobel-winning scientist at its helm who believes that our nation is facing several daunting challenges and that science and technology will contribute to solutions. He also believes that, to ensure national security, we must innovate our way to substantially more sustainable energy. Distinguished scientists from Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and SRS recently presented testimony to the Subcommittee of Energy and the Environment of the House Committee on Science and Technology of the urgency of the need for research on climate change and its impacts, and the value of NERPs as ideal locations to support that research. Enacting federal legislation that designates SRS as a NERP would enhance its role as a center of energy research, and its future as an energy park. The question should not be “Is this a good idea?”; the question should be “Why hasn’t it happened already?” As residents of the CSRA, we should support the SRS’s major role in scientific research, sustainable energy, and National security as a NERP and a potential energy park. Ms. Patterson is a former Savannah River Ecology Laboratory graduate student, a consultant to electric utilities and a member of the S.C. Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council.