Originally created 11/17/00

From the ground up



North Augusta resident Bill Reinig vividly recalls the sweltering summer of 1951 as one of the brightest times in his life.

Mr. Reinig was working at a research lab on Long Island, N.Y., studying nuclear activity, when he was transferred to the Augusta area.

He was one of about a dozen scientists who made up DuPont's first research team. Scientists from various DuPont plants throughout the country were sent to examine the radioactivity of the site.

The chemical giant had been selected to build and operate a facility dubbed Savannah River Plant, where tritium, plutonium and other vital nuclear weapons components would be manufactured. The $1 billion project would be the government's most costly defense undertaking of the time.

"This was preconstruction," Mr. Reinig said. "Our goal was to determine the amount of natural radioactivity on the site and the surrounding area before the actual facilities were built."

In fact, Mr. Reinig said that when he arrived families were still living on the 310-square-mile area that later became Savannah River Site.

"There were small farms and quite a few sharecroppers still living there," he said. "And lots of families didn't move until the following summer."

Almost a year earlier, Nov. 28, 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission announced it was claiming more than 200,000 acres in Aiken and Barnwell counties to build a massive nuclear weapons complex, one that would generate the radioactive components of the hydrogen bomb.

The project forced residents in six small towns to relocate. By the evacuation deadline, construction workers were arriving by the thousands to settle in temporary trailer cities lining the plant boundaries. Some were sleeping in tents because of the severe housing shortage.

By June 1951, 8,000 plant workers were at the site. Crews were busy preparing roads and highways to support the heavy traffic, and railroads were under construction to prepare for site deliveries. Construction brought about 40,000 workers to begin laying the foundation for the facilities.

"It was a very exciting time," Mr. Reinig said. "During the construction days, Hollywood couldn't have been busier."

With the world still recovering from World War II, tensions between the Soviet Union and United States had placed every American on alert. People displayed their patriotism and made personal sacrifices.

"There was a very different attitude at SRS in during those days," Mr. Reinig said. "The early workers felt it was their patriotic duty during those unsettling times."

Many residents in the rural towns slated for destruction to make room for the new plant joined its work force, amazed to see their cotton fields and peach groves transformed in a matter of a few years.

Mr. Reinig recalls spending long days in the field attempting to measure the amount of natural radioactivity at the site.

"We didn't have the technology that is available today," he said. "So we had to make do with what we had under these strange conditions."

During the 18-month project, scientists measured the amount of natural radioactivity already present at the site and in the vicinity. The calculated figure was used as a baseline to measure increases in radioactivity as a result of the nuclear reactors during the years.

Mr. Reinig's research program was the first of two founded that year. The University of Georgia established its ecology lab in October 1951.

Both programs addressed environmental issues. DuPont established the programs so that any increase in radioactivity or change in environment could be noticed. And these programs were in place about 20 years before the government began enforcing regulations by way of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This was very early in the game," Mr. Reinig said. "DuPont was and still is very concerned with the environment."

Today, 12 organizations, within both the state and federal governments, monitor radioactivity at the site.

When the project was complete, Mr. Reinig stayed on at SRS and held many positions during his 43 years there.

When DuPont left SRS in 1989, Mr. Reinig worked for Westinghouse as the director of its Environmental Protection Program and later became a consulting scientist. He retired in 1994.

Today, Mr. Reinig remains active in his field. He serves as vice chairman of an educational support group known as the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.

The organization, composed of about 6,000 members, holds conferences and speaks at various events in an attempt to dispel some of the myths about radioactivity and educate groups on nuclear technology.

Reach Ashlee Griggs at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 109.