NEW ELLENTON, S.C. -- The wide-mouth bass are monsters. The deer are fatter and the alligators longer. And the ponds, wetlands and rich bottomland brim with snakes, turtles, and salamanders -- a bounty of biological diversity.
But the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile expanse of longleaf pine forest and marshland along the river that divides South Carolina from Georgia, is an ecological paradox.For four decades it was one of the government's top-secret nuclear bomb factories where five reactors produced plutonium and tritium for nuclear warheads. It also is an ecological treasure chest full of wildlife and one of the hottest spots for biological research in the country, including long-term studies on the movement of contamination -- nuclear and otherwise -- through the environment.
In a sign of the sites' ecological importance, the Energy Department Thursday transferred management of a 10,000-acre sliver of the Savannah River site over to management by the South Carolina Natural Resource Department.
"This will further protect a unique habitat that for almost 50 years has been spared from development," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said, in marking the management transfer.
"It is absolutely a paradox. From the outside, people see it as a nuclear site," says Whit Gibbons, a senior scientist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, whose 35 faculty scientists and dozens of other researchers and students have been closely studying the place for years.
The nuclear complex, mostly mothballed reactors and structures devoted to cleaning up the mess they made over decades of nuclear weapons production, covers only about 10 percent of the Energy Department's property.
The rest is largely pristine wilderness undisturbed by development for a half century -- vast expanses of longleaf pine forests, Cypress swamps, Carolina bay wetlands and a creek that boasts the highest number of different aquatic insect species -- 650 -- of any river in North America.
There are also more than 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, 79 species of freshwater fish, more than 1,500 vascular plants, 7,000 whitetail deer, turtles, several hundred alligators, thousands of migratory birds, bobcats, and a number of endangered or threatened species including the red-cockaded woodpecker, wood stork, smooth purple cone flower and bald eagle.
"People think it has to be an awful place," says Gibbons, an ecology professor at the University of Georgia who has scrutinized the Savannah River Site for 32 years. "But it's not. Ninety percent of it is better protected than the rest of the region around us." And thanks to 50 years of isolation from development, the wildlife has thrived.
In the heart of the complex sits Par Pond, a meandering 2,300-acre lake that gets its name from two reactors -- P and R -- that are its neighbors. Once it served as the cooling pond for the reactors, and despite its beauty, it also contains highly radioactive cesium-137, plutonium-237 and strontium-90.
Now the lake is full of fat largemouth bass as well as more than 200 alligators, some of which have grown old and big. Some of the alligators have been measured at more than 12 feet.
"This is one of the world-class bass fisheries," says Tom Hinton, a scientist at the laboratory, who has been studying how radiation migrates through the environment. Or it would be, if fishing were allowed.
The fish, says Hinton, are all slightly radioactive, contaminated with cesium-137. The alligators are contaminated, too, as are many of the other wildlife and plants. Hinton says the contamination is generally at low levels.