DOE vows to help with transition to fewer Hanford jobs

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerJanuary 28, 2010 

The Department of Energy is ready to help the Tri-Cities area make the eventual transition to fewer Hanford jobs, a top DOE official said Wednesday.

But first the community needs to agree on a vision of what it wants its future to look like, Mark Gilbertson, deputy assistant secretary at DOE, said at the Tri-City Development Council's an-nual economic outlook conference in Pasco.

"We understand we are guests in your community," said Ines Triay, DOE energy assistant secretary for environmental management. "We want to work to-gether and make sure we understand your vision for the community."

Triay originally was scheduled to visit the Tri-Cities for the conference, but instead made brief remarks by video teleconference when she needed to stay in Washington, D.C., to prepare for the release of the proposed Department of Energy 2011 budget next week.

Hanford is receiving nearly $2 billion in federal economic stimulus money, which will help speed cleanup of the nuclear reservation that once was used to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

The money is being used to do work that had been planned for later years at the site, such as tearing down contaminated buildings and digging up buried waste. That will reduce the size of the contaminated portion of the site and reduce overhead costs.

But that accelerated work means that the size of the cleanup program will begin to decrease, Gilbertson said. Plans need to be made for when the extra $2 billion is spent in 2011, he said. Currently Hanford employs about 11,000 workers, which does not include all the subcontractor employees.

The Department of Energy is working to soften the impact of the end of stimulus money and other changes at Hanford as cleanup progresses, said Shirley Olinger, the manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection.

"We all are trying to figure out how to make (employment numbers) steady versus ups and downs," she said.

With the age of workers averaging in their 50s, newly hired workers will be needed for jobs such as operating the vitrification plant being built to treat some of Hanford's worst waste, she said. The plant is expected to begin operating in 2019, but workers will be needed sooner to commission the plant.

In addition, even though most cleanup is expected to be finished along the Columbia River by 2015, work to tear down buildings and dig up waste sites will then shift to central Hanford.

"We're going to be here for several decades," Olinger said.

The Tri-Cities already has made progress toward diversifying its economy to be less dependent on Hanford, said Mike Scott, an economist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The Tri-City economy moved in lock step with Hanford with a few exceptions until 1994, but that has changed, he said.

From 1994 to 2008, area employment, total income, population and residential real estate sales and building permits have increased significantly despite few changes in Hanford employment, he said.

However, earlier figures released by DOE to TRIDEC project that Hanford employment is likely to peak this year and then begin a decline through 2050 to about 2,100 workers.

As the Tri-Cities works to further diversify its economy, it should look to the strengths of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, such as biofuels and work on the nation's power grid, Gilbertson said.

"How can you commercialize it?" he asked. "How can you create sustainable green jobs?"

The community, under TRIDEC's leadership, is looking at possibilities for a proposed clean energy park at Hanford that could research or produce green energy. But the community will need to agree on a plan, Gilbertson said.

"The community coming together is one of the most important aspects of a long-term endeavor," he said.

Asked about the Rattlesnake Mountain Observatory, which DOE had removed from Rattlesnake Mountain to the dismay of some in the community, Gilbertson said there were others, particularly the tribes, who wanted it down.

DOE has supported efforts to save historic B Reactor as a museum after the community came together in support of it.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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