Once upon a time, radioactive alligators roamed the ponds and swamps near the Savannah River Site.
After a decades-long clean-up at the nuclear facility, the wildlife in the area are no longer radioactive, but the alligators in particular remain the source of scientific toxicity studies.
In the early 1950s, the Department of Energy took 310 square miles of land in Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale Counties to create what the locals called “the bomb plant.” The area that the site is on is roughly the size of New York City.
In the process of building the nuclear weapons production facility, more than 6,000 people were relocated from their farms and four towns, including the incorporated city of Ellenton, were flattened.
The people could be relocated. The wildlife, though, was another matter.
As nuclear technology was in its infancy, scientists knew that the waste created from harnessing the atom was the most toxic of substances on Earth. At the time, every effort was made to secure the nuclear waste, but it still seeped its way into the swamps, retention ponds and tributaries around SRS.
By the time the remediation and clean up efforts began in the 1980s, all of the wildlife in the area had high levels of radiation, including the alligators.
Scientists learned that they could track the clean-up process by repeatedly testing the wildlife, and the alligators became somewhat of a canary in the coal mine for researchers. Scientists learned that because alligators are apex predators and consume other wildlife that could also be radioactive, the gators were some of the best animals to study.
By testing the reptiles’ blood and feces, researchers could get a good idea of just how effective the remediation efforts were.
According to Ben Parrott, assistant professor at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, the efforts have been successful as the animals on the site today do not have radioactivity levels anywhere near what they were when the remediation began.
“We still test for Radiocesium, but the levels are so low that they are not a major concern,” Parrott said.
However, in the remediation efforts at SRS, scientists found that the alligators could be very useful in future studies pertaining to ecology and human health.
Climate change theories dominate the headlines with activists warning of sea level changes and temperature fluctuations due to human activities over centuries, and Parrott said there is a very immediate threat in the burning of fossil fuels.
The danger that Parrott warns of is mercury contamination that could eventually affect humans and human reproduction.
Mercury is a metallic element that exists naturally. It is not man-made like the elements Einsteinium or Nobelium. Every living thing has trace amounts of mercury in their system.
The problem is that no organism can expel mercury from its systems, so whatever amount is ingested will stay in that organism’s body for its entire lifespan.
Volcanic eruptions and forest fires send mercury up into the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels also produces the release of mercury.
According to Parrott, officials in Florida cannot operate landfills in most of the state because the water table is so low. If they dig a landfill, it will just simply fill up with water like a well. Therefore, most communities in Florida have to burn their waste, which releases mercury into the atmosphere.
The mercury in the atmosphere then falls back to Earth in the form of rain that collects in lakes and tributaries. Fish then ingest the mercury and it is trapped in their bodies.
That is where the alligators become important for researchers.
“We start with the mercury in the fish and then follow it up the food chain,” Parrott said.
Because alligators have relatively long life spans, scientists can study how bioaccumulation, or build-up over time, affects the gators’ health.
According to Parrott, the gators are tagged with a GPS device that makes it easy to monitor each individual over time.
“We take a small biopsy of the tail to measure the mercury levels in the muscle, and we draw blood so that we can study how the mercury may be affecting hormone levels and reproductive health,” Parrott said.
According to Parrott, if the mercury does begin affecting the alligators’ mating behavior and number of offspring, then it should be a serious warning to humans because, like alligators, we are an apex predator.
…And that is something you might not have known.