SREL WAS FOUNDED IN 1951 BY EUGENE ODUM, a then-associate professor of biology at the University of Georgia who had prepared an ambitious proposal for analyzing the living organisms at SRS. Known as the “father of modern ecology,” Odum set the stage for fellow UGA researchers to enter the site and delve into radioecology, which is the study of the fate and effects of radioactive contaminants in the environment and the use of radioactive tracers to follow ecological processes. After the publication of about 30 scientific papers and quick establishment of an international reputation in radiation research, it was evident in the early ’60s that there would be a need for a permanent on-site laboratory.
In 1972, SRS was designated as the first National Environmental Research Park (NERP) by the Atomic Energy Commission. This status opened the site to scientists from other government agencies, universities and private foundations for use as a protected outdoor laboratory where long-term experiments could be conducted to answer questions about human impacts on the environment. As a result of receiving NERP designation, DOE established 30 set-aside areas that are representative habitats preserved for ecological research. Encompassing more than 14 thousand acres, these set-asides are protected from most site operations.
They are biological sanctuaries that serve as controls, providing a baseline for determining how contaminated areas should behave after clean-up. As custodian of the set-asides, SREL has proven to be an invaluable resource to the Department of Energy (DOE) in accurately assessing risks, developing effective remediation and restoration strategies, and providing scientific data to aid in management decisions. For example, when erosion began to release low-level radioactive contamination from exposed reservoir sediments, SREL researchers showed that contaminants could be effectively isolated without excavation and reburial, saving DOE an estimated $4 billion.
“OUR MISSION HERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN TO BE AN INDEPENDENT ECOLOGICAL OBSERVOR…We’re not funded solely by DOE. We’re funded by a mixture of sources,” says Dr. Olin Eugene Rhodes, UGA professor and SREL director. “We’re an imbedded partner that has been here the entire time with one job and that job has been to determine whether there are environmental impacts of what they’re doing here. And so from my perspective that means that our job, in part, is to protect the local community.” Annually, the lab reports to the SRS Citizens Advisory Board (CAB), which is part of the Environmental Management Site-Specific Advisory Board, a stakeholder that provides the assistant secretary for environmental management with information and recommendations on issues of clean-up standards and environmental restoration, waste management and disposition, stabilization and disposition of non-stockpile nuclear materials, and future land use.
A recent example of how SREL works to keep the public safe is its recent technical review of the SRS Radiological Monitoring Program. Scientists from SREL concluded that the monitoring program was adequate to assess potential risks to the citizens of South Carolina and Georgia, but better communication of the risks or lack thereof is needed for the local communities. This evaluation was then provided to the CAB. “We do find things,” says Dr. Rhodes. “We have small releases of radionuclides; we have radionuclides that have leaked from one place to another. Our job is to see whether those small amounts of radionuclides have an impact on the environment…We also look to see whether these contaminants are affecting the biodiversity of the site.”
FOUR YEARS AGO, Dr. Rhodes was contacted about the directorship of SREL because they needed somebody to rebuild the lab, stabilize it and, as he puts it, “give it a good shot in the arm.” Former Purdue University professor and USDA assistant director of the National Wildlife Research Center, Rhodes is uniquely qualified for the position not only because of his expertise but also because he did his masters work with white-tailed deer right here at SRS. According to Rhodes, current SREL research is focusing on contaminant loads of tritium, radiocaesium, mercury, copper and zinc in wildlife species that would be potentially consumed (e.g., deer, wild hogs, fish, and ducks). “…Our job is to understand how these contaminants move in the ecosystem through the soil, water and biota, and at what point in that cycle they have impact on other living things or have potential to move into the food chain.”
Another area of focus that has high relevance to the community is the lab’s research on the emergence of antibiotic resistance in metal-contaminated streams and the implications for human health. Senior research ecologist Dr. J Vaun McArthur is at the helm of these studies and has a particular interest in aquatic microbial ecology, ecological genetics of microbes, the interactions between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and macroinvertebrate ecology. “I’m a stream ecologist working with the little guys and bacteria,” says Dr. McArthur, who has been at SRS for almost 31 years.
“There are numerous things we’ve discovered…When you expose water born bacteria to heavy metals you actually can increase antibiotic resistance. That’s a huge public health problem. Most people feel the problem with antibiotic resistance is that we over prescribe and people don’t take them all, and that’s true. That’s direct selection.” But, he continues, there’s a significant impact related to indirect selection, as identified during an SREL experiment involving the measurement of water coming in and out of a coal fly ash basin. Data show that the water flowing out of the basin had higher levels of antibiotic resistance than the water flowing in. “That’s huge,” he says, adding that his work has sparked the curiosity of the director at the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center, now interested in partnering in research that considers the relationship between the environment and medicine.
AGAIN, ONE OF THE REASONS SREL is able to produce such sound data is because of access to highly-protected controls of near-pristine swaths of beautifully complex SRS habitats, including swamp forest, bottomland hardwoods, pine forest and the enigmatic Carolina Bays, or elliptical depressions of undetermined origin. Here on site, cypress trees that are more than 600 years old rise strong through delicate but dense veils of Spanish moss. SRS is truly a natural wonder, home to about 1,500 species of plants, more than 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, some 50 species of mammals, nearly 100 species of fish and more than 250 species of birds. Additionally, the site provides habitat for a number of sensitive species, including wood storks, red-cockaded woodpeckers and smooth purple coneflowers (all federally endangered), and at least 30 plant species of state or regional concern.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Dr. John Morse, now professor emeritus of entomology at Clemson University, conducted a legendary study of Upper Three Runs Creek, the largest stream at SRS. He and his team collected adult stream insects and determined that Upper Three Runs had the most species of any stream
in the world. Fascinated by this historic compilation, Dr. McArthur began a re-sampling effort in 2009 to determine if development in Aiken County had impacted this national treasure.
To date, Dr. McArthur’s team has screened 25 thousand caddisflies out of 70 thousand specimens. No other taxa have even been collected and analyzed yet. “There are 158 species of caddisflies alone in that one group. Just put that in perspective. It’s huge,” says Dr. McArthur. Thus far,
re-sampling has indicated that the site and the surrounding areas have not negatively impacted the species of Upper Three Runs. “It’s still thriving. We were surprised. We are trying to figure out why it’s so species rich; it’s a little species hot spot.”
THE LAB’S WORK GOES BEYOND OUR BACKYARD as researchers are sent across the globe to provide insight on issues of nuclear contamination. SREL assistant professor Jim Beasley recently collaborated with researchers from Japan, Belarus and the United Kingdom on a study that revealed the presence of thriving wildlife populations in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). Although animals from these
contaminated areas continue to accumulate high levels of radiation within their body tissues, any potential effects of this exposure have been overshadowed by the fact that, despite radiation exposure, abundant and self-sustaining populations exist for a large diversity of wildlife species. “Our data are a testament to the resiliency of wildlife when freed from direct human pressures such as habitat loss and fragmentation and suggest the exclusion zone can support abundant and self-sustaining populations of a multitude of species,” says Beasley.
Beasley also serves in an advisory role in Fukushima, Japan, for the International Atomic Energy Agency, an entity of the United Nations member states that oversees radiation protection all over the world. In this role he travels to Japan to give presentations, as well as guidance, and addresses environmental concerns that impact wildlife as a result of the 2011 nuclear accident. According to Beasley, there is a substantial local, national and international monitoring and remediation effort underway in Fukushima to ensure the safety of the local food and communities. There also has been extensive mapping of radiation dose rates by researchers and local citizens within affected areas at a very fine scale. These measurements indicate that radiation dose rates continue to drop within contaminated areas and provide reassurance to citizens concerned about radiation levels within their communities.
LIKE THE WORK OF MANY of his SREL colleagues, student involvement has been an integral component of Beasley’s research program. “…Helping students grow as scientists and achieve or even exceed their professional goals is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job,” says Beasley.
“Education is something that we take extremely seriously,” says Dr. Rhodes. “I was one of those over 400 graduate students in the history of the lab that got their degree working on problems right here. Because I was one of those students, it is extremely important to me to reestablish that. When I got here, there was only one graduate student—we’ve got 26 now.” In short order, Dr. Rhodes has enlivened a very important piece of one of SREL’s missions, which is to train the next generation of scientists right in Aiken’s backyard.
Helping students grow as scientists…is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.
Since 1985 SREL’s graduate students have won more than 200 awards at regional, national and international scientific gatherings, progressing shortly thereafter in careers in their respective fields. Although many choose to matriculate at the University of Georgia (SREL’s parent institution), approximately half come from other institutions throughout the country. Research is jointly supervised by the student’s university research committee and an advisor at SREL. Additionally, SREL currently offers a research experience for undergraduates in radioecology, the world’s only undergraduate training in this field. The intensive 10-week, hands-on summer program funded by the National Science Foundation provides 10 undergraduates the unique opportunity to study radioecology and various areas of ecotoxicology at SRS. “It has reestablished this [SREL] as a place where you can come work on really cool, interesting things that have ramifications to biodiversity and the local community,” says Dr. Rhodes. “We’ve got a growing nuclear power industry and few students are being trained to look at effects of radionuclides in the environment. But ours are.”
ONE OF THE WAYS SREL ATTRACTS SOME OF OUR COUNTRY’S GREATEST MINDS is through its outreach programs, many of which target elementary, middle and high school audiences. Particularly popular is the Ecologist for a Day field trip, which takes students on trails to get up close and personal with nature and even try their hands at stream sampling. Annually SREL also presents about 300 “eco-talks” to school, civic and professional groups. Educators give 45-minute to one-hour lectures with live animals as visual aids, covering topics such as animal adaptation, biodiversity, ecology of the southeastern U.S. coastal plain, endangered species, habitat destruction and natural resource conservation. We see SREL most frequently in this role, but, as previously indicated, it is only one aspect of a multi-pronged mission. They are very much an advocate for not only the environment but also our community, both local and international. There’s something happening out there in the middle of the forest, a convergence of brilliance and biodiversity that is unparalleled in the history of science.
This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.