Originally created 01/23/04

Layoffs likely for SRS workers



AIKEN - Roughly 300 workers are targeted for layoffs by the company that runs Savannah River Site in a plan awaiting final approval from the U.S. Department of Energy, a spokesman said Thursday.

Westinghouse Savannah River Co. has been discussing the layoffs with DOE since November and expects approval within a matter of days, company spokesman Will Callicott said.

The company hasn't identified which jobs will be cut, but laid-off employees will be on the payroll for at least another four months, Mr. Callicott said.

Westinghouse President Bob Pedde announced the imminent layoffs in a brief memo sent to many of the company's 11,600 workers.

"As I have stated previously, the best thing that you can do for yourself and the site as a whole is to continue to demonstrate the strong performance of this work force in safely accomplishing every mission assigned," he wrote.

Since Westinghouse took over SRS in 1989, its primary mission has involved cleaning up the environment and handling waste left over from reactors that produced radioactive materials, such as plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

The work force has steadily declined from about 25,000 in the early 1990s to about 13,300 now, which includes Westinghouse employees and workers at DOE, Bechtel, Wackenhut Security and other subcontractors.

As work at the site slows, rumors of layoffs speed up.

The reduction announced Thursday won't be the last between now and the end of 2006, Mr. Callicott said, when Westinghouse must resubmit its bid to keep running the site.

"We have said all along that at the end of '06 there will be fewer people here than there are today," he said. "We operate in an environment that has far too many variables to know with certainty beyond this fiscal year how many jobs will be lost.

"That is partly because we are dependent year by year on a federal budget process that is never 100 percent predictable."

If SRS isn't selected for any new missions between now and 2020, the site's work force could be as small as 5,000, said Ernie Chaput, a former deputy manager for DOE at SRS who now provides consulting for the Economic Development Partnership for Aiken and Edgefield counties.

The site, however, has been selected to construct a facility that would remanufacture fuel rods for commercial nuclear power plants, which could provide as many as 1,000 jobs. It's also in the running to build DOE's modern pit facility, which would manufacture softball-size plutonium balls that are used to trigger nuclear weapons.

Completing that mission could require as many as 4,000 new workers. Mr. Chaput and the Development Partnership also are marketing SRS for private-sector activities, such as hydrogen research, commercial power generation and a reactor for college instruction.

"The challenge for the community is to go out and support new missions that are compatible to the skills of the site," he said.

Final approval of layoffs at Savannah River Site are expected within a few days. Laid-off employees will have about four more months on the payroll. Additional layoffs are expected between now and 2006.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.