The SRS's significance as an outdoor laboratory has been recognized from the beginning, as the Atomic Energy Commission (now DOE) actively sought involvement from academic institutions during the site's establishment. Formal recognition came in 1972 when the site was officially designated as the nation's first National Environmental Park. Over the years research on the Savannah River NERP has provided many insights into human effects on the environment as well as basic ecology. Examples include:
Environmental research on the SRS began with basic biological inventories and radiological controls, but soon developed into much more. Through the leadership of University of Georgia researcher Eugene Odum, UGA developed a long-term partnership with the AEC that led to a wide range of ecological research on the SRS and the establishment of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL).
Opportunities for environmental research on the SRS continued to grow with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and other important environmental legislation in the early 1970s. Both bills mandated stronger environmental responsibility on all federal lands, including the SRS. The USDA Forest Service, which has managed large tracts of the SRS for timber production since the 1950s, began to prioritize habitat management as well; SRNL, which had been primarily tasked with project support for nuclear activities, developed a much stronger environmental management component; and SREL's research program continued to expand. The site's designation as the first NERP in 1972 further established environmental research as a priority on the SRS.
Closure of the last reactor in 1988 and designation of the SRS as an EPA Superfund site in 1989 led to a strong emphasis on environmental remediation and long-term management of legacy materials from the site's earlier days. Legacy materials remained the focus of site activities for nearly two decades, until groundbreaking for a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in 2007 marked an era of renewed industrial activity on the SRS. DOE has also recently proposed development of an energy park on the SRS, which would conduct a variety of energy and alternative fuels research. Thus, in the future the Savannah River NERP may play an immportant role in evaluating the environmental consequences of emerging energy technologies, and finding more sustainable ways to meet the nation's energy needs.
Although the mission of the SRS itself has shifted over the decades with the changing needs of the nation, the purpose and relevance of the Savannah River NERP remain the same. Through all of its stages of development the SRS has been, and will remain, a place to explore natural ecology, human impacts, the buffering capacity of natural systems, and the requirements for a sustainable natural-industrial complex. Further, the Savannah River NERP provides a rare opportunity to examine these issues in the long term, over decades of human influence and scientific inquiry.