Data shows DOE needs to cut $171 million at Hanford

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 6, 2013 

The Department of Energy needs to cut $171 million from Hanford spending because of forced federal budget cuts called sequestration, according to updated information given Tuesday to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

That does not include some possible impacts to subcontractors, Inslee was told in a letter from DOE Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman.

The largest cut will be to work managing 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in aging underground tanks and to build the $12.2 billion vitrification plant to treat the waste for disposal. Those projects, both under the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, will see an estimated reduction of $92 million.

The rest of the $171 million will come from a $79 million cut in spending on projects under the DOE Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for Hanford cleanup along the Columbia River, central Hanford cleanup except for the underground tanks, cleanup of contaminated groundwater and the overall operation of the nuclear reservation.

The estimate of the number of employees affected has remained unchanged from the start of the week. Up to 4,700 workers out of almost 9,000 at Hanford can expect to be forced to take furloughs or might be laid off, according to the letter.

"The department is reallocating money from long-term efforts to limit sequestration's near-term impact," the letter from Poneman said. "The impact of prolonged or permanent sequestration, then, would be greater than described here."

The $92 million cut to Office of River Protection spending comes less than two weeks after six of Hanford's single-shell tanks were newly reported to be leaking radioactive waste into the soil. Waste from producing plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program has been stored in the tanks, some since World War II.

Sequestration may curtail progress related to emptying and closing the single-shell tanks, Poneman said in the letter.

"Sequestration's blind, across-the-board cuts weaken our state and nation's fragile economic recovery," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. "These irresponsible cuts, which will take workers off the job as we deal with potentially leaking tanks full of nuclear waste, need to be replaced."

Inslee plans to visit Hanford today to learn more about the leaking tanks.

Washington River Protection Solutions, the DOE contractor managing the underground tanks, told its employees Tuesday that it may need to reduce spending by up to $40 million by Oct. 1 as part of the Office of River Protection budget cut of $92 million.

That represents 18 percent of its remaining budget for the fiscal year and means furloughs and layoffs are necessary, said the employee memo from Mike Johnson, president of Washington River Protection Solutions.

Employees will need to take up to five weeks of paid or unpaid time off over about seven months. In addition, about 125 union employees will be laid off.

Additional action will be needed later in the fiscal year if nonlabor costs cannot be reduced as much as assumed, the memo said.

"This is disheartening news, I know, and nothing I say will make it less so," Johnson said in the memo.

If spending is reduced by $40 million, that would leave the remaining $52 million reduction to be made at the vitrification plant. However, numbers remain somewhat uncertain.

Bechtel National told its employees Tuesday that while it waits for formal guidance from DOE, it will limit hiring, travel and purchases, and overtime must be approved in advance.

Washington Closure Hanford, which is in charge of cleanup along the Columbia River under the DOE Richland Operations Office, told its employees Tuesday that it did not believe furloughs would be needed for the $27 million cut it is expecting.

Cost-saving measures earlier in the year are minimizing the impact of the sequestration there.

However, DOE is operating under a continuing resolution rather than a budget passed by Congress this year and a decision on extending the continuing resolution later this month could lead to more budget reductions, according to Washington Closure.

The Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland believes it is better positioned than most national laboratories for sequestration because of the diversity of the research it conducts.

Lab leaders made conservative plans for the current fiscal year and do not believe furloughs will be needed.

However, the abrupt sequestration approach to federal deficit reduction is not good for science research, lab director Mike Kluse said in a message to employees Tuesday.

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

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