Unnatural Beauty

SRS' L Lake is a Cold War anachronism


The least known natural resource in South Carolina may be something called L Lake. The 1,000-acre body of water near the center of the Savannah River Site (SRS), is off-limits without federal security clearance. For all intents and purposes, the lake is invisible to the general public, save for those who may get a glimpse of it from their window seats as they fly over on their way to Atlanta, Columbia or Augusta.

    The fact that few people know or care about L Lake is convenient for SRS's federal landlords. Under a proposed cost-savings measure announced last fall, L Lake would quite literally be allowed to disappear.

    If and when L Lake goes, a remarkable ecological system -- one that now attracts bald eagles and a large population of wading birds -- will go with it.

    The proposal that would kill L Lake raises the question of whether it is worth saving, and at what cost? It also illustrates one of the Cold War's lasting ironies. Large nuclear weapons production and research sites such as the 310-square-mile SRS, the 560-square-mile Hanford site in Washington, and the sprawling 893-square-mile Idaho National Engineering Laboratory house some of the deadliest collections of chemical and toxic wastes on Earth. Yet there are large, undeveloped parts of these sites that harbor splendid collections of plants and animals. L Lake is one of these places.

    At first glance, the proposal that would end L Lake seems to make sense. To begin with, God didn't create L Lake and nature alone could not sustain it. What gives it life now is an extensive system that pumps water from the Savannah River through miles of piping to the site's five reactor areas.

    The large supplies of water once were needed at SRS reactor areas to supply cooling water to the reactors' large heat exchangers. Now that the reactors are historical artifacts, SRS would like to deactivate the system to save energy and maintenance costs.

    The problem, simply, is that the decades of pumping river water have altered the ecology of the site's natural drainage system. Not only have animals and plants adapted to the wetlands created by the higher water levels, but the rich nutrient content of the imported Savannah River water supports a more diverse and abundant aquatic ecology than existed before.

    L Lake was created in 1984 after the damming of Steel Creek, one of a handful of site streams that empties into the Savannah River. The lake is actually a living monument to the Reagan Administration's plans to expand the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal in the 1980s. To meet the arsenal's new demands for plutonium, the Department of Energy (DOE) decided to restart the aging L reactor at SRS.

    The plan resulted in a prolonged battle between DOE and environmental advocates who challenged the need for the restart and warned of the severe environmental damage that would be caused when the reactor once again started discharging large volumes of scalding water directly into Steel Creek. As a condition for restarting the reactor (which eventually shut down for good in 1991) L Lake was created to absorb the hot water discharges and lessen the thermal damage to the environment.

    Today, a cold L Reactor awaits dismantling while the lake it lends its name to lives on, however precariously. SRS estimates that it could annually save $1 million by deactivating the river water pumping system at SRS. But no pumping would spell doom for the lake, which would gradually shrink, leaving scores o fish, birds and other creatures high and dry.

    There are other risks as well. The sediments beneath L Lake are known to be moderately contaminated with cesium-137, a biologically active radionuclide with a 30-year half-life. As the lake level recedes, more of the contaminated soils will be exposed to plants and animals. There is research indicating that the change in water chemistry -- which would occur when the river water tap is turned off -- would effectively "unlock" a greater fraction of the cesium-137 into the L Lake/Steel Creek ecosystem.

    Although the exposed contaminated lake sediments would not pose an immediate public health hazard (after all, there are no lakefront homes on L Lake) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control worry that DOE may be moving too swiftly with the proposed plan.

    Levels of cesium contamination in the lake sediments are high enough that the prospect of having to clean the lakebed must be taken seriously. One can imagine the outcry if, in order to save a small fraction of its annual budget, SRS chose a course that resulted in the need for yet another costly cleanup.

    All things considered, it might just be worth it to keep L Lake around for a while.


    Tim Connor is associate director of the Energy Research Foundation.

© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 4/14/97