More than 4,700 workers at the Hanford reservation in Washington state where six tanks are leaking radioactive waste are facing furloughs or layoffs under $171 million in U.S. budget cuts, the Energy Department said.
While the department remains committed to cleaning up the site, which holds waste from the production of nuclear weapons, “this decreased funding and the resulting contractor employment actions may curtail our progress,” the department said today in a letter to Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
“While these reductions are unfortunate and will be damaging, the department is doing everything within its power to protect our mission to the greatest extent possible,” the Energy Department wrote. President Barack Obama signed an order last week to cut $85 billion in spending this fiscal year as part of a deficit-reduction plan known as sequestration.
Inslee, a Democrat who is scheduled to tour the site tomorrow, has said Energy Secretary Steven Chu told him in a meeting last month that six Hanford tanks holding radioactive waste were leaking. The tanks are among 177 buried at Hanford, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Seattle along the Columbia River.
“The governor’s initial concern is for workers who may be out of work because of this deadlock in Washington, D.C.,” David Postman, Inslee’s spokesman, said today in an e-mail. “The governor has also made it clear that budget constraints cannot be an excuse to delay responding to these leaking tanks.”
In all, funding for the Energy Department’s contractors in Washington state may be reduced by about $182 million, cutting the hours or jobs of as many as 4,800 employees, the department said in the letter. Furloughs could start as soon as April 1, the agency said.
In a separate letter to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, the department said the sequestration may cut funding for the Savannah River nuclear site by $104 million, forcing furloughs or layoffs of more than 2,100 contractors there.
Five nuclear reactors at the site produced about 36 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from 1953 to 1988. Like Hanford, much of the waste from the production process is stored in underground tanks, raising fears of leaks.
The cuts at Hanford may include about $79 million at Hanford’s Richland Operations Office, forcing the potential furlough or layoffs of more than 1,900 contract employees, the department said.
Another $92 million in cuts for the contractor running Hanford’s Office of River Protection may affect more than 2,800 contractor employees, according to the letter.
Nine nuclear reactors and processing facilities produced plutonium at Hanford from 1944 to 1987. The man-made radioactive element was used in atomic bombs, including the device dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 that helped end World War II.
Workers are cleaning up millions of gallons of toxic waste at the complex. The effort has been stymied by delays and technical issues, causing the projected cost to triple to $13.4 billion since 2000, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in December.