Savannah River Site, the bomb plant, sprawls across the land near Aiken—a 61-mile drive from where I grew up. When I was a boy I discovered the woman next door, Miss Ann, made the 120-plus-mile round-trip five days a week. A peacekeeper of sorts, she’d gotten on at the bomb plant. For a long time I knew little about this nuclear reservation.
One July day in 1986, a self-assigned writing project took me to Savannah River Site. And what a site! Larger than my home county by 53 square miles, the site, then as now, covers 310 square miles. It consumed communities, farmland, graveyards, and a town. The government moved Ellenton lock, stock, and barrel outside the site, a disruptive event like few others. The people are long gone but the radiation is alive and well.
People just can’t be at this place anymore. This fact and the need for security keep the everyday man persona non grata, making the site a natural laboratory, a coup the University of Georgia scored in 1951. Boars, bobcats, perhaps bears, deer, and other wild things dwell in this region of shutdown reactors. The ecology lab’s mission was to study radiation’s effect on plants, animals, and simple-celled organisms. It sounded like a good story to tell.
That July afternoon, accompanied by an official guide, I set out on a nature quest in the belly of an atomic beast. I began to look, remember, and write in my head. On one occasion, we drove by massive terraces guarded by razor wire, the burial site for “hot” material with a 100,000-year lifespan. Among the concerns for this radioactive graveyard is the fear language might change so much over 100,000 years people will forget what’s here.
And on another assignment I saw a building like few others. “You aren’t allowed to photograph that,” said my guide, a wetlands ecologist. We were driving by a baleful building, R Reactor, the site’s first production reactor. It once manufactured tritium and plutonium-239 isotopes. In 1963, after ten years of operation, a defective fuel rod released Cesium 137 into Par Pond, a man-made lake for cooling reactors. Months later, President Johnson called for a reduction in the arms race. R Reactor closed June 17, 1964. All these years later looking at R Reactor amounts to a Cold War history lesson. For all we know it staved off global calamity.
In 2011 the powers that be decommissioned the reactor and filled it with cement, turning it into an impenetrable block. They welded its doors shut. It will stay this way for the next 1,400 years, a nanosecond to the cosmos.
Would I go back? Yes. I will go back to this Atomic Diaspora where an unexpected exodus uprooted 6,000 people. I’ll go back because seeing how easily lives can be changed humbles you. I’ll go back because SRS is more natural than most places, save wildlife refuges and national parks, and in some ways it trumps those. Carolina bay wetlands and biological diversity ennoble this place.
In a great paradox a place that refined materials for hydrogen bombs created a grand oasis where more than 240 bird species, over 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, and nearly 100 species of freshwater fish live. A creek coursing through here exhibits the greatest diversity of invertebrates of any creek in the Western Hemisphere. South Carolina’s largest alligator—over 13 feet long—lived here. As Whit Gibbons, one-time director of the University of Georgia Ecology Lab there, pointed out in USA Today, “These are not nuclear mutants, simply specimens grown large because they are not hunted or fished. It’s a pretty simple formula,” he said. “The best protection for the environment is no people.”
No people. It’s a superb formula. Think how many buildings, parking lots, sewer systems, gas lines, power lines, convenience stores, golf courses, garbage, and dumpsters would afflict these 310 square miles had no SRS existed. But it did, and instead you find solitude. The wind whispers through pines. You hear not one cry from civilization. No contrails, no aircraft mar the blemish-free sky. No litter. No billboards. No mowers. It’s like going back 300 years … the way things used to be.
Miss Ann died of lung cancer. I remember seeing her lying in bed waiting for the end. Maybe radiation killed her. I doubt she realized the majesty surrounding her. She worked in a wildlife refuge but never spent one night there.
I, however, dream of camping in this atomic paradise. I’ll set my camp in a grassy plain beneath stars undiluted by city lights and count shooting stars. Well dream on Tom. You’ll never get to do that, of course, and none of you readers will ever go to SRS without solid justification. As close as you will get is driving through on SC Highway 125 or taking a guided tour. Man’s influence here just isn’t what it once was and that suits me fine.