Originally created 01/24/04

SRS missions won't end layoffs



AIKEN - With the announcement that roughly 300 Savannah River Site employees will be laid off in the next four months, the federal nuclear reservation has resumed an inevitable reduction in its work force that is unlikely to be offset by new missions, experts said Friday.

Although Westinghouse Savannah River Co.'s planned layoffs still have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Energy, Thursday's announcement was expected by Aiken County lawmakers and officials who have been told job reductions were coming as environmental cleanup projects wind down.

"SRS has been a very big part of this community for a very long time, but none of this has been a surprise," said Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian.

New missions for SRS, including the $3.8 billion MOX facility that would convert plutonium into fuel that could be burned in commercial nuclear power generators, won't come online fast enough or employ enough workers to compensate for future layoffs by Westinghouse, the prime contractor that runs the site for the federal government.

"There's going to be some lag time and layoffs," said U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., whose district includes Aiken and SRS.

Mr. Barrett said he and Georgia U.S. Reps. Max Burns and Charlie Norwood, both fellow Republicans, will meet with DOE officials in Washington next week to get a timetable on future SRS layoffs and how big they will be.

"I want to get some definite numbers, as far out as they can estimate, so we know what to expect in the next two or three years," Mr. Barrett said.

By 2028, the SRS work force, which was 25,000 at the height of the Cold War and is more than 13,000 now, will shrink to between 4,000 and 5,000 jobs, said Ernie Chaput, a former DOE deputy manager at SRS who is a consultant for the Economic Development Partnership for Aiken and Edgefield counties.

That's if SRS fails to win new missions such as the Modern Pit Facility, a trigger factory for nuclear weapons that would employ more than 1,000 workers, Mr. Chaput said. SRS is one of five federal nuclear reservations in competition for the $4 billion facility. The MOX facility would employ about 500 people.

"We're going to drift downward," Mr. Chaput said. "If we're successful in (winning new missions for SRS) it will not - not - offset the expected job losses."

Westinghouse spokesman Will Callicott declined comment on Mr. Chaput's estimates, but did say his company would continue to reduce its 11,600-employee work force from now until 2006, when the SRS management contract is up for renewal. In addition to Westinghouse's payroll, SRS also employs workers for DOE and other contractors.

"We certainly expect that by '06, the site will be smaller than it is now by a factor larger than the 300 people we're talking about," Mr. Callicott said. "The manpower needs will be less than they are today."

This week's announcement of plans to lay off about 300 employees of the prime contractor running the Savannah River Site marks what is expected to be a steady decline in the nuclear reservation's work force. Analysts estimate that by 2028, SRS will employ as few as 4,000 people.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.