Hanford furlough notices could come Wednesday

KENNEWICK — Workers at the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site could start receiving furlough notices Wednesday because of the partial government shutdown.

The Tri-City Development Council estimates up to 9,000 workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the nearby Pacific Northwest National Laboratory eventually could be put on temporary leave or laid off.

The business group has sent a letter to members of Congress asking them to end the shutdown, the Tri-City Herald reported.

While the job losses would not be permanent, the letter says local businesses likely would see less spending while federal workers are idled.

The Hanford site is the largest single employer in the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco. It has about 8,500 workers with security clearance, plus an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 workers without it who provide services or goods through subcontractors.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said furloughs at Hanford are one of the reasons she’s been working to end the shutdown.

“I’ve spent my entire career working to ensure timely and adequate Hanford budgets because I know how painful a lapse in funding would be to the community, our environment and the legal and moral obligations we have to cleanup efforts,” the Washington Democrat said in a statement. “I am committed to working to end this crisis.”

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons, and now is engaged in a massive cleanup of nuclear waste. The complex cleanup has been underway for two decades, with many delays because of technical issues, and is expected to last for decades more. Any delays that result from the government shutdown are not likely to be significant, unless the shutdown stretches on for a long time.

Furloughed workers might be able to claim vacation time, if they have any remaining after last year’s forced federal budget cuts.

The U.S. Department of Energy has released no specifics about how the federal government shutdown will be handled at Hanford. Last week, the agency said that if the shutdown continues it will be forced to close nonessential operations and furlough federal and federal contract employees.

With no federal budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, Hanford has been operating largely on money carried over from previous years.

Based on what is being announced for other Energy Department sites, the Tri-City Development Council believes about 80 percent of Hanford staff could be furloughed to reach the minimum staffing level needed to maintain safety and security.

At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, up to 35 employees are expected to be furloughed this week. But if the shutdown continues, the number of employees furloughed would escalate each week.

The lab’s budget is far more complex than that of Hanford, which receives about $2 billion annually from the Energy Department budget.

The lab has an annual budget of about $1 billion, much of it from the Energy Department and other programs that choose to have research done at the lab.

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