NEW ELLENTON - There's a fiscal clock ticking on plans to lay off 1,200 Savannah River Site employees this year, officials said, one that places a penalty on a lengthy delay of approval by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Federal energy officials in Washington have yet to green-light a December request by the primary SRS contractor, Westinghouse Savannah River Co., to begin two rounds of layoffs this year and next.
The longer they delay, the more difficult it becomes for Westinghouse to pay severance packages for all the employees targeted for termination this year, said Westinghouse spokesman Will Callicott.
The problem, Mr. Callicott said, is that Westinghouse has to pay for this year's layoffs with money budgeted for salaries and benefits for the current fiscal year. Severance packages for employees terminated this year have to be paid for with this year's money, he said, and can't be carried over into the next year.
The alarm on this fiscal clock will begin sounding sometime this spring, he said.
"Ideally, a reduction of personnel would be accomplished early enough in the fiscal year so that the cost of the reduction could be absorbed within that budgeted amount," Mr. Callicott said in a written response to questions. "If people aren't off the rolls sometime this spring, we would have to find ways to absorb that cost."
DOE officials at Savannah River Site say the layoff plan, which also calls for an additional 800 employees to be terminated next year, has been forwarded to agency headquarters in Washington.
As of Thursday afternoon, the agency had not approved the plan, local DOE spokesman Bill Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor acknowledged a lengthy delay would create problems for Westinghouse, but he would not speculate on the potential impact or the reason the plan has not been approved.
"It would be speculation until there is a force reduction approved and Westinghouse puts the plan in play," Mr. Taylor said.
The severance package for terminated employees is one week's pay for each year of service, with a maximum of 26 weeks of pay, Mr. Callicott said. He would not give details on how much money Westinghouse has budgeted for severance packages.
Mr. Callicott also said a lengthy delay might cause the company to postpone "lower priority work." U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed fear that work delays might affect environmental cleanup of nuclear residue from Cold War weapons work.
"If you delay that glide path, it has to come from somewhere," he said.
Neither Mr. Callicott nor Mr. Taylor would speculate about reasons for the delay. But Mal McKibben, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, said it is related to the departure of former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and two top deputies, a changing of the guard that has created political uncertainty.
"They're in a totally confused management situation at the moment," said Mr. McKibben, a former SRS project manager. "It's not unusual for DOE to delay a decision like this. ... It doesn't surprise me that they've been slow - it's the new organization people coming in at DOE."
If the delay stretches into spring, the resulting cost overrun would be the subject of negotiations between DOE and Westinghouse, Mr. McKibben said.
"This is not a Westinghouse liability," he said. "They have an obligation to provide the information on the cost of delay, but it is DOE's liability. It's a DOE call all the way."
The cutbacks are a result of the steady completion of nuclear waste cleanup and the demolition of Cold War-era buildings that are the legacy of the site's atomic weapons work. As those projects wind down, SRS needs fewer employees. More than 25,000 people worked there in the early 1990s; by 2030, the work force is projected to be between 4,000 and 5,000 people.
"The Savannah River Site is really a victim of their own success," said Colleen Mangone, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C.
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (706) 828-3904 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
U.S. Department of Energy officials in Washington have yet to approve a layoff request made in December by the primary contractor at Savannah River Site. Westinghouse Savannah River Co. and its five partners employ 10,500 of the site's 12,500 employees. The proposed cuts are 1,200 employees this year and 800 employees next year.