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Contract change could affect jobs at SRS tritium program

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Savannah River Site's tritium program -- and its 400 jobs -- could be managed by a new contractor under a plan to consolidate the operation with nuclear weapons sites in Texas and Tennessee, according to a request for proposals issued last week.

The expiration of management contracts at the Y12 National Security Complex near Knoxville, Tenn., and Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, led to the decision to combine the facilities into a single contract that includes the option of incorporating the tritium operation at SRS, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The plan, first reported by The Augusta Chronicle in March 2010, would not relocate the SRS facilities or its employees, but could possibly shuffle or reduce jobs during the reorganization, which would occur over several years.

The plan would save taxpayers an estimated $895 million over the coming decade, but NNSA officials say it is too early to elaborate on employment effects.

"Keep in mind the SRS contract change is just an option at this point, so actual impact is uncertain," said Rick McLeod, the executive director of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, an economic development group.

The potential change, however, creates several concerns, according to a letter the group sent to Department of Energy officials.

The "fragmented contract" approach being considered could inhibit the performance of the program if it is managed from a remote entity, the letter said, and a management team with loyalties outside the local community might not work as well as local partnerships.

The group voiced concern over whether a "new" contractor would fully support and use the Savannah River National Laboratory, which now handles research support for tritium operations.

"With a home office out of this region, the new contractor will have little desire or obligation to use this on-site resource, which will mean a reduction in SRNL expertise," the letter said.

The tritium program is one of the last nuclear weapons functions still based at SRS.

The program includes periodic recharging of the tritium reservoirs in nuclear warheads. Tritium, a gas that increases explosive power, has a half-life of about 121/2 years and requires recharging. Workers also extract tritium from fuel rods produced at TVA reactors and from both surplus and active warhead reservoirs.

Tasks performed at Pantex include retrofitting and repairing of nuclear weapons, testing and development of high explosives, interim storage of plutonium pits and dismantling of surplus warheads.

The Y12 site was part of the World War II Manhattan Project. Its current missions include the reworking of nuclear weapon systems and components, surveillance of nuclear weapons and related materials, and prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Y12 is managed by Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, composed of B&W Technical Services and Bechtel National. Pantex is managed by Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Pantex LLC, which is composed of B&W Technical Services, Bechtel National and Honeywell International.

The tritium program at SRS has been defined as a "severable work activity" under the jurisdiction of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, made up of Fluor Federal Services, Northrup Grumman and Honeywell International.

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