Department of Energy National Environmental Research Parks

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History of the Research Parks

Interest in ecological research evolved after World War II as the United States sought security and safety by producing nuclear weapons in isolated regions surrounded by large buffer zones of undeveloped land. DOE's predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), began to recognize the need to track both radioactive fallout from the testing of nuclear weapons and inadvertent radioactive releases from nuclear weapons production facilities into the environment and into the human food chain.

As early as 1952, ecological research on radionuclide cycling was under way at the Hanford site and on land surrounding other nuclear weapons facilities. Scientists sought to understand the natural ecosystem and the transport, cycling, and fate of radionuclides and other contaminants in soils, water, and air. Out of the radionuclide research grew pioneering technologies for quantifying the movement both of natural materials such as nutrients and fluids and of introduced pollutants through the ecosystem. In 1967 AEC formally designated a portion of the Hanford site, the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, as a study area for scientists and educators--2 years before the National Environmental Policy Act directed each Federal agency and department to make environmental protection a part of its mission.

In 1972 AEC established its first research park at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The plan for a research park emerged during a formal review of the environmental research activities at Savannah River. The review team, consisting of scientists, representatives from other Federal agencies, and members of the newly formed President's Council on Environmental Quality, found the site well suited for ecological research for several reasons: its security, current knowledge of its environment, and the fact that it offered examples of most major ecosystems in the southeastern United States. Savannah River also illustrated environmental disturbances caused by energy and weapons development, and it had streams and swamps that served as study sites for the fate and effects of pollutants in aquatic ecosystems.

Some of the review team's recommendations shaped the charter and directives that were drawn up in 1976 for the DOE research parks. Although some priorities have changed since then and some terms have acquired new meanings, the charter and its directives still address many current environmental concerns and, therefore, continue to be relevant and appropriate today.


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Last Updated: October 2007