AIKEN - The federal government has yet to finalize how it will manage Savannah River Site after 2006, and the lack of clarity is leaving potential bidders in limbo.
The Energy Department has already conceded that its current private contractor, Washington Savannah River Co., will have to manage just high-level nuclear waste through 2007, a year after its current contract expires in December.
The agency plans to use one contract for that portion of the SRS job and at least one more for the management of other tasks, including its Savannah River National Laboratory research wing.
But the Energy Department has yet to release "request for proposal" documents that spell out to potential bidders how each contract will be shaped, and companies say it historically takes at least a year to prepare detailed bid offers.
Longtime Energy Department observers say it's likely that Washington will have to manage the entire nuclear reservation beyond the end of the year.
"They're reaching the point where they're going to have to extend WSRC's contract," said Mal McKibben, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. "I just don't think they're going to have time to do all the things the law requires."
The Energy Department says it will publicize its management strategy in "coming months." But any attempt to complete the process this year could strain the engineering companies that have expressed interest.
"That would be a fairly tight time schedule," said Jack Herrmann, the vice president of communications for Washington Group International, Washington Savannah River Co.'s parent company.
In addition to Washington, which plans to pursue every SRS contract, EnergySolutions, Fluor Daniel and Parsons have expressed interest in running at least part of the site.
Competition for Energy Department contracts can be fierce, and competitors tend to be tight-lipped about their plans. Whichever company, or companies, wins SRS contracts will earn millions of dollars in profits.
Competitors aren't sitting idly by as they wait for direction.
"We're continuing to work at understanding site issues and how improvements can be made," said Dan Evans, a Fluor Daniel manager who will prepare the company's bids.
Some attribute the delay to the Energy Department's workload. The agency is currently negotiating eight contracts across the country.
"This has slowed them down," Mr. McKibben said. "They don't like to admit it."
The Energy Department has experienced similar cycles of competition as recently as the 1998-2000 time frame, and they were handled successfully, spokeswoman Megan Barnett said in an e-mailed statement.
"Although the current period is heavy for the competition ... we are making progress," she wrote. "Acquisition planning is under way for the Savannah River competitions and we expect the RFP to be released in the coming months."
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or email@example.com.
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