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Lofty goals in store for leaner Savannah River Ecology Lab

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Savannah River Ecology Lab has managed to preserve an important “stable of expertise,” despite losing much of its budget and personnel, according to the facility’s new director.

“Additional funding is still needed to bring the laboratory to its full potential, but we are moving in those directions,” said Olin “Gene” Rhodes, who started work in January at the University of Georgia research facility at Savannah River Site.

The lab’s varied missions include studying the effects of radiation and nuclear production on the environment. Its scientists have produced more than 3,200 peer-reviewed papers and 62 books since its creation in 1954, Rhodes told members of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board on Monday.

Today, the lab that once bustled with 250 workers and a $10 million annual budget operates on a leaner scale — with 67 staffers and a 2012 budget totaling about $3.5 million.

Even with fewer resources, the current staff includes an exceptional blend of expertise in geology, soil science, radiation ecology, environmental chemistry and other disciplines helpful in exploring cleanup of contaminated areas and the ecological and health risks associated with nuclear materials.

“The concepts we engage at the site require specialized teams and expertise,” Rhodes said. “The site and UGA have stepped up to keep the lab funded and functioning, and part of my job is to find new ways to increase those funds.”

Better technology and research tools, combined with a resurgence in nuclear power, will make the lab and its studies even more vital in future years, he said.

“We can look at DNA in ways I never would have dreamed of 10 years ago,” he said. “We’d like to see SREL become a place to train the next generation of scientists.”

A primary goal is to help restore and expand studies in radioecology – the science of tracking how radiation affects plants and animals.

“Radioecology is an area that is underserved,” Rhodes said, noting that there are no graduate degree programs for radioecology anywhere in the US.

One of the lab’s projects involves development of new curricula for radioecology, Rhodes said.

“What better place to rebuild that ability than SREL?”


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