Hanford vit plant could face furloughs this summer

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 16, 2013 

Bechtel National is considering closing down the vitrification plant project for two weeks this summer because of a possible lack of money.

Nonunion employees would be furloughed -- required to take paid or unpaid time off -- for those two weeks. Union employees in most cases would not be allowed to work and earn pay, either.

However, if the Department of Energy moves ahead with reprogramming money in the fiscal 2013 budget, the furloughs might be avoided.

Because Congress did not pass a budget for the current year, spending reverted to the level approved in the previous year, with money allocated specifically for work at the vitrification plant's Pretreatment Facility. However, construction is halted at the facility because of technical issues that must be resolved.

To shift Pretreatment Facility construction money to other work at the vitrification plant, DOE must submit a reprogramming package to Congress, which has not happened yet.

The details of a possible reprogramming are uncertain. Money could be moved from the Pretreatment Facility for other work at the vitrification plant. Some of it also could be shifted to the Hanford tank farms.

The vitrification plant is being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Work has slowed at the tank farms because of mandatory federal budget cuts called sequestration, which has resulted 37 layoffs and furloughs of up to 6.5 weeks. The slowdown comes as DOE is working to meet a court-enforced consent decree deadline to have the 16 tanks in the group called C Tank Farm emptied to regulatory standards by fall 2014.

The vitrification plant project has previously announced no furloughs or layoffs tied to sequestration. However, it has taken cost-cutting measures such as limiting purchasing, travel and hiring.

If less money than anticipated is saved by those measures, that also could affect the decision on whether to go ahead with furloughs.

"As we continue to closely monitor our expenditures in April and May, we will continue to keep you informed of necessary actions," said Bechtel project director Frank Russo in a memo to employees late Tuesday afternoon.

"We can only spend authorized funds," he said. "Therefore, we must maintain the flexibility to operate within our funding limitations."

Bechtel and its subcontractor URS are considering moving all employees to a uniform work schedule of 10-hour days for four days a week in anticipation of possible furloughs. Furloughs could be scheduled for the Monday through Thursday after July 4 and the Monday through Thursday before Labor Day to give employees the maximum number of days off with the minimum number of furlough days.

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