By Alex Distefano
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His daughter's cancer is in remission now, but getting there took 11 months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and four surgeries. Before she got sick, Snell had scarcely realized he was sharing his corner of rural Suffolk with a nuclear reactor. While watching nurses jabbing the girl's arm with a needle in a fruitless search for a useable vein, Snell made up his mind to learn everything he could about Brookhaven. "She grabbed me by the neck and cried, 'Why, Daddy, why?' " he recalled. "That kind of started me on a journey."
Snell is now a member of Citizens for a Cleaner Brookhaven. His family has also joined with about 130 others in suing the laboratory over illnesses they link to the lab's pollution and over sagging property values they link to living beside a Superfund site.
Snell said his biggest fear about RHIC is not that it will blot out the planet, but that it will spew yet more radiation. He questions why the lab continues to operate now that suburbia has crept up to its gates. "It's not like you're out in the desert somewhere. You're surrounded by people. You're sitting on top of their water supply," he said. "The people who work there understand the risks of working around radiation. The people who live near it, we didn't sign up for this."
Unlike the battle over the Shoreham nuclear power plant, the war over Brookhaven has become a skirmish of inches. The picketing of a decade ago has given way to lobbying of legislators and legal maneuvering over federal environmental assessments.
Neighbors and activists are succeeding in increments. They claimed one recent victory when Brookhaven fenced off RHIC's "beam dump," the underground tank where old ion beams go to fizzle out. Cullen, the attorney for Standing for Truth About Radiation, said young people were sneaking onto the grounds and playing in potentially radioactive spots. "RHIC was where a lot of kids were going to be riding their bicycles. It's this big racetrack," Cullen said. "My concern was that kids would be riding around while this thing was operating."
Like a Good Neighbor
For all the ground Brookhaven has lost with environmentalists, the lab may have found a way to mend fences. Lab officials have made speaking to the public and giving tours of the facility a priority in recent years. People turn out by the hundreds to see demonstrations of chemical physics and walk through gargantuan machines. When Long Islanders concerned about RHIC started calling, Brookhaven put together a team of physicists to write a report, due by the end of August, that will attempt to explain in plain English why RHIC is a friendly neighbor.
Brookhaven has also grown more politically savvy, setting up community groups to study various issues at the lab.
Nancy Miklos, who represented 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition at a recent meeting of the RHIC subcommittee, said she listened to a scientist talk about the ion smasher and abandoned her suspicions one by one. She decided RHIC was in fact designed with enough safety features to shut itself down in the event of an accident and to prevent radiation from reaching groundwater. She decided Brookhaven must not be building weapons with the machine, because scientists from around the world are working on it. And she decided that far from threatening to explode the planet, RHIC offered a chance to develop a clean alternative to nuclear power.
"When I came home from that meeting, I said, 'Holy mackerel!' " recalled Miklos, who also serves as a trustee of the Long Island Power Authority. "There's an opportunity here to get rid of the nuclear power industry."
Brookhaven officials said they don't know what they'll gain from getting a fresh glimpse at the earliest building blocks of the universe. At a cost of $600 million, RHIC could end up being little more than an expensive junket to the galaxy's ground zero. Rowe argued that society has never been able to predict what gains will come from supporting big science. Who would have guessed, she said, that nuclear experiments in Suffolk County would aid the development of tools for diagnosing heart disease or tracking the effect of cocaine on the human brain? "People ask why we would get anything out of re-creating early matter," Rowe said. "When electrons were discovered, nobody could foresee electricity.
"If the public is educated enough and confident enough about science, then they'll fund this kind of research. It's basically an act of trust and faith that some day the world will be a better place."
But for people who live closest to the lab and have suffered more ill effects than good from its work, Brookhaven's latest experiment requires an involuntary act of faith that the world will still be here at all.