Layoffs, furloughs at Hanford expected to slow cleanup

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YAKIMA — State and federal officials are still analyzing the impact of layoffs and furloughs at south-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, but outsiders say they are sure to slow cleanup at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site.

The Department of Energy announced that 235 people will be laid off, and more than 2,500 will be furloughed for several weeks, as a result of automatic federal budget cuts.

About 9,000 people work at the site, which produced plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal beginning in World War II and through the Cold War.

"You can't furlough 20 percent of the workforce without having an impact on the work," said Gary Petersen of the Tri-City Development Council, an economic development group targeting communities near Hanford from its Kennewick offices ."There's no question that the longer you delay cleanup, the longer it's going to take and the higher the cost," he said.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most complex environmental cleanup project.

The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on the cleanup there -- roughly one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally.

Several contractors are digging up contaminated debris and soil, tearing down buildings and mothballing nuclear reactors, treating contaminated groundwater, and removing millions of gallons of radioactive waste from underground tanks for treatment at a plant under construction there.

The Energy Department has said the layoffs largely affected union employees who practice a particular trade, such as pipefitters, while the furloughs targeted nonunion office workers, including administrative, engineering and safety professionals.

Those skilled workers could look elsewhere for jobs, rather than accept smaller paychecks, creating a shortage of such workers at Hanford, said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford watchdog group Hanford Challenge.

The budget cuts aren't a surprise, Carpenter said, "but it's awful.

"We can't afford to lose that highly trained workforce on such an important mission as nuclear waste cleanup," he said.

Officials are wrestling with six leaking underground waste tanks at the site. There are 177 tanks holding millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste. Sixty-seven of the 149 tanks that have just a single wall are known to have leaked in the past; 10 of those have been emptied so far.