When Vice President Dick Cheney recently proposed that we look to
nuclear power to ease the energy crunch, I thought about a little-known,
curious experiment conducted in the 1960s and '70s at Brookhaven National
Laboratory on Long Island. During the Cold War, the danger of a nuclear
war or the accidental release of radioactive materials seemed real. To
examine the effects of radiation on natural ecosystems, the federal
government sponsored experiments. At Brookhaven, scientists irradiated an
I was one of the researchers in this forest of dead trees standing.
The forest looked as if it had just burned the day before, though the
trees had actually been dead for years. We could work in the forest up to
four hours a day because the radiation used, cesium's radioactive isotope
137, was relatively 'clean': Only gamma rays were produced. The
laboratory had moved the largest source of cesium 137 that could be
safely handled by earth-moving machinery into the forest and mounted it
on a vertical, movable pole. The pole had devices that lowered the
radioactive material into the ground, where lead shields provided the
protection for researchers.
A journey to the center of the forest--that is, the source of
radiation--after a decade of exposure was surreal. The forest was
enclosed by two chain-link fences with locked gates. Just inside the
fences, the woods were typical of those found on Long Island: a dense
clutch of small pitch pines, scarlet and white oaks, and small shrubs,
mostly blueberry and huckleberry. Many plants were quite fragrant. The
sounds of crickets and cicadas filled the air. Ovenbirds called. My walk
toward the source began as a pleasant stroll through the woods.
As I moved closer, more and more pine trees had dead branches and
needles. Farther on, all the pines were dead, but many were still
standing. Some of the fallen pine trunks were beginning to rot--the
bacteria and fungi of decay had survived the radiation.
Up ahead, the white oaks looked sick. Soon, they, too, were all
dead--and standing. The scarlet oaks proved to be the hardiest of the
trees. As I neared the source, I saw some survivors.
It was like walking up a mountain. The higher up you climb, the
smaller and fewer the trees. Eventually, the trees drop out completely
and you reach a zone of low shrubs, then a tundra zone of smaller ground
plants and, finally, if the mountain is high enough, no life at all.
So it was in the irradiated forest. Blueberries and huckleberries
survived the trees, growing among grasses and sedges. Closer to the
source, only a patchy cover of sedges. Then you came upon perfect
triangles of sedges--green, grass-like, flowering plants--growing behind
the trunks of standing dead trees. Just as they do with sunlight, the
trunks shaded the sedges from the radiation. It was an eerie
demonstration of how light rays travel.
Near ground zero, all plants were dead, but they had not decayed. The
radiation had killed off the armies of decay: fungus, bacteria,
I hunted around for any signs of life. Within about six feet of the
source, I found, on the back of a sign warning of the radiation danger, a
small green patch of the algae Protococcus. The algae grows on damp
soils. The sandy soil encircling the source was tinted gray, the color of
the dead leaves and twigs that had not decayed.
From the air, the forest was an eerily beautiful sight of death
radiating outward. You could see the tower containing the radiation,
surrounded by a lifeless, gray-tan zone. Then came a circular ring of
sedges, one of shrubs, another of oaks without pines and then the healthy
forest. Rather than the intricate mosaic of life forms that characterizes
normal forests, the one at Brookhaven was a series of concentric circles
signifying the stages of death by radiation.
The radioactive waste generated at nuclear power plants can create
similar landscapes. One idea is to bury it. But the radioactive materials
remain dangerous for 10,000 years. A government task force assigned the
job of designing a warning system that could be understood by people
living 100 centuries from now came up with the idea of constructing solid
structures above the waste depository that would emit mournful sounds
when the wind blows.
The irradiated forest at Brookhaven National Laboratory is mournful
indeed. The forest and the problems associated with the transportation
and storage of nuclear wastes are also a mournful prospect, one that
should make us pause and think carefully before we move in the direction
of greater emphasis on nuclear power rather than on energy sources that
are more environmentally benign.
Daniel B. Botkin, a research professor of biology at UC Santa Barbara, is the author of "No Man's Garden: Thoreau and a New Vision for Civilization and Nature."
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times