The National Nuclear Security Administration hopes to save $895 million over 10 years under a plan to consolidate three critical nuclear weapons programs -- including Savannah River Site's tritium operations -- under a single contractor.
"We will definitely still have three physical sites, but what we're talking about here is the contract to manage them," said Patty Wagner, an Energy Department site manager who led the strategy team that developed the plan.
The expiration this year of management contracts at the Y12 National Security Complex near Knoxville, Tenn., and the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, led to the decision to combine those facilities under a single management contract -- in which the SRS tritium program would be included as an option, she said during a public information meeting held Tuesday to discuss the transition.
The Pantex site is in charge of high explosives and nuclear weapon assembly and disassembly, while the Y12 complex houses the uranium operations.
The SRS tritium program, which employs about 400 workers and draws support services from 300 to 600 personnel in other areas, involves recharging tritium reservoirs in nuclear warheads. Tritium, a gas that increases explosive power, has a half-life of about 12.5 years.
Wagner said it is too early to determine how the eventual change in the SRS program's management will affect employment.
Whoever wins the contract, she said, will have the authority to implement work force restructuring, but would be asked to give preference to on-site employees with critical skills.
Ernie Chaput of the Economic Development Partnership of Aiken and Edgefield counties -- who also is a former SRS employee -- questioned whether the plan was in the best interests of the nuclear program and ongoing efforts to find new missions for SRS.
"It's not real clear what problem you're trying to solve," he said. "What drove you to these conclusions? It's almost like you're taking three independent activities and throwing them in a basket."
The tritium program works fine under its current structure, he said.
"It ain't broke, and it doesn't need fixing," he said. "It has exceeded every expectation."
Wagner responded that the administration conducted a detailed business study that indicates streamlining the programs is the appropriate path to take.
"From our perspective, it does make sense," she said. "So we're going to offer it as an option in the contract."
Currently, Y12 is managed by Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, comprised of B&W Technical Services and Bechtel National. Pantex is managed by Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Pantex LLC, which is comprised of B&W Technical Services, Bechtel National and Honeywell International.
Although the tritium program will be added as an "option" in the new contract, there is an expectation that the option will be exercised in about a year, Wagner said.