Originally created 12/18/97

Work back to normal after Pena



Now that Energy Secretary Federico Pena has come and gone, it's back to normal for 14,200 employees at Savannah River Site.

That means waiting and seeing and hoping that the good news doesn't come too late.

Early budget figures for the fiscal year that begins next October shows an estimated $80 million cut in fiscal 1999 for the South Carolina plant, U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday.

That would translate into layoffs at a time when SRS needs to maintain its work force to manage potential new missions to produce tritium and handle plutonium waste, the congressman said.

"We're at a point now where we're having a brain drain that needs to stop," he said. "I think, right now, we have a work force that would allow us to accommodate new missions. But if you keep ratcheting the numbers down and we get new missions, you're going to wind up hiring people back."

In the end, that would cost taxpayers more, he said.

The constant uncertainty surrounding the South Carolina plant's budget is creating problems in other ways.

Young, qualified employees are leaving for more stable jobs elsewhere and replacing them isn't easy, said Jack Herrmann, a spokesman for Westinghouse Savannah River Co., the plant operator.

"It's hard to offer someone a job when you can't show you have the budget to support them the next year," he said. "Right now we can handle new missions with our existing work force. If decisions are delayed much longer and our work force declines, we could have a problem."

President Clinton is expected to present his fiscal 1999 budget late next month -- the first clear indication of what's in store for SRS. After that, it's up to the House and Senate to craft their own budget versions and to reach an agreement.

At a Wednesday breakfast meeting with community leaders from both sides of the Savannah River, Mr. Pena reiterated that his goal is to "find a way to stabilize" plant employment.

"I'm am very much aware of sensitivities people have about how you can maintain a critical mass of expertise and competence in the work force at the site so that when you look at potential new missions, you don't have to bring people back in," Mr. Pena said. "I can't tell you where we'll finally end up in our discussions ... but we'll continue to work very hard to reach that goal."

Should SRS be awarded a project in 1998 to turn leftover bomb plutonium into glass and into fuel for nuclear reactors, the plant could be getting money from new sources. That could offset cuts elsewhere, Mr. Herrmann said.

"But until those decisions have been made, there are still big question marks," he said.