Originally created 04/18/06

Retirees worry about SRS contract change

AIKEN - Savannah River Site retirees are concerned that their pensions and medical benefits could be harmed by contract changes at the nuclear reservation.

Washington Savannah River Co., formerly known as Westinghouse Savannah River Co., started handling retirement benefits when it took over the site in 1989. The company's contract expires at year's end, though, and the U.S. Department of Energy plans to divide management responsibilities between two contracts - one specifically for handling of SRS' 36 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste and one for just about everything else.

It is possible Washington Savannah River could win both contracts, an outcome that might ease retirees' concerns. A number of companies have expressed interest in chasing the SRS contracts, however, and the Energy Department has yet to formally release its final request for proposals or address retirement benefits.

"We want to keep everything as it is," said Nick Kuehn, the first vice chairman of the SRS Retiree Association board of directors.

The organization, which represents about 900 of the site's estimated 4,000 retirees since 1989, held its annual meeting Monday in downtown Aiken.

It does not represent workers who retired before 1989, who were part of a previous plan handled by the DuPont company.

The association's keynote speaker, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, a South Carolina Republican whose 3rd District includes SRS, told members that he and other politicians had asked the Energy Department to leave the retirement plan intact.

Mr. Barrett and representatives for other political leaders thanked the retirees for their work at the weapons site and for protecting the United States during the Cold War.

"We would not be the country we are or enjoy the freedoms we do without each and every one of you," he told several dozen members.

How much Washington Savannah River pays into the retirees' pension fund varies from year to year, depending on the number of participants and how well investments from the fund perform on the open market.

The company paid about $165 million this year into the fund, which is worth about $1 billion, spokesman Will Callicott said.

The pension fund pays retirees a percentage of their income after they leave SRS. It is based on the employees' age at the time and the number of years they worked.

Their medical benefits are continued until age 65, after which they supplement Medicare coverage.

Retirees emphasized that the Energy Department didn't address benefits in 1989 until U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond provided help.

Members said they were encouraged by the way the agency handled the Los Alamos National Laboratory contract in New Mexico, where benefits went largely unchanged during a recent contract transition.

Jeff Allison, the Energy Department's SRS manager, told retirees that he expected the pension plan would remain unchanged but that medical benefits remained under review.

"The key players in the acquisition process are well aware of your concerns," he said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.


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