The largest American Recovery and Reinvestment Act project in the region is at its peak.
Savannah River Site leaders who have dealt with the yearlong ramp-up of employees to do the waste removal and reactor decommissioning work are now shifting their focus to handle the ramp-down.
The $1.6 billion in the Recovery Act funds projects that employ 3,114 people, a bit more than the 3,000 that had been predicted.
The money is being spent on remediating 50 contaminated areas at SRS and closing two reactors that once produced material for the nation's nuclear arsenal. Those plans sat on the shelf waiting for funding when the Recovery Act was signed and federal officials went in search of "shovel-ready" projects.
What happens to all those people when the work is done and the shovels are put away?
The answer is inexact.
"We have a 12-month window before significant decline," said Jim Giusti, a Department of Energy spokesman. "We've asked the contractors to start looking at that. And they are going to come back with a plan for us."
There are phases of some of the 70 projects that have already ended, causing a slight shift of personnel to other areas of the site, he said. Some of the projects will run past the September 2011 date that has been used to mark the end of the Recovery Act work, but it won't be a large number of people affected.
"We can't speculate that there's going to be more funding coming to the site, so what we're preparing for - and drafting plans for - a demobilizing process," said Paivi Nettamo, the spokeswoman for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, a main contractor at SRS.
So far, they only have drawing-board ideas that involve looking at other projects throughout the Southeast that could use the work force that have been trained at SRS.
"There is a nuclear renaissance that we're paying attention to," Nettamo said. That means the additional reactors at Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga., and VC Sumner near Columbia. Charleston, S.C., has a Boeing plant coming in that also has the attention of SRS leaders, she said.
Essentially, the SRS contractors will try to find their Recovery Act workers other jobs.
It is a problem that Angel Kelsey Wall doesn't have.
The 31-year-old Augusta chemist joined the Recovery Act work force in July but was hired into a permanent position at SRS this month.
Wall left her job at NutraSweet to rejoin the SRS work force. She was in an ecology lab for six years before her stint at NutraSweet.
Now she works in an analytical lab that includes monitoring the radiation exposure of employees and testing industrial samples for lead content.
"I liked the opportunity to get back to environmental work. When this opened, I had to jump at it," Wall said.
Melissa Roberts would love to be hired into a permanent position.
Roberts was jobless for five months after getting the pink slip in February 2009 from an environmental consulting firm in Columbia. She was hired by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions in July as a geologist.
"I get to do more advanced projects here than what I've been able to do in the past. I get to play with bigger and more expensive toys out here," she said. "More advanced scientific work here."
Roberts is occupied with environmental permits now but will get back into the field with well testing in a month.
"I'm getting a lot of good experience on the job," Roberts said.
That experience is part of the key in placing Recovery Act workers in other jobs outside of SRS when the mission winds down.
"We try to make sure they have all the info they need in their résumé, so they are prepared to seek off-site employment," Nettamo said. That includes details of their training so they can include that information on résumés.
Bill Picciano's résumé is getting longer.
Picciano was laid off by Kennametal and had exhausted the family savings account living off unemployment checks until he got a logistic job at SRS.
Since his June hiring, he has acquired more duties in site clearance for the construction department, writing work packages and assisting with hazard analysis.
"Got a lot more jobs than originally intended, which is good," he said. "I hope it has made me more marketable here at the site. Or after this project is over, somewhere else."
He, too, still hopes he is working at SRS after September 2011.
"As long as we can keep things moving in the right direction, who knows where it will take me," Picciano said.
Being mindful of the futures of more than 3,000 people is new ground, Giusti said.
"This Recovery Act has been new business for us. A lot of this has been a new way of doing business already," he said, explaining the short period of time to ramp up and implement the cleanup projects.
"While we've had reductions at SRS in the past, we've never had anything like this before," Giusti said.
"Our goal is to help the workers transition to another possibility if another one exists."
More than 15,000 people sent résumés to SRS contractors to get jobs there, he said. Some trickle in even now, although there is no hiring left to do.