Spending cuts could lead to Y-12 furloughs, ORNL reactor shutdown

Oak Ridge Today

A report released Wednesday said the automatic federal spending cuts set for March 1 would require furloughs at the Y-12 National Security Complex and a shutdown of the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The report was issued by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.

It said Y-12 would have to furlough 700-1,000 of its 4,500 employees for up to six months, and there would be hundreds of layoffs at national laboratories, universities, research facilities, and private sector companies that rely on grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science for energy research, the report said.

“It will reduce operations of major scientific facilities, meaning less research and development in one of the highest-priority research areas—designing novel materials—which is critical to advancing energy technologies,” the report said.

Operation of the environmental remediation landfill in Oak Ridge would be curtailed, “hindering progress of other remediation efforts across the site,” and decontamination projects at Oak Ridge and Hanford would be delayed, the report said.

It said safeguards and the security of nuclear and radiological materials at the national labs could be at higher risk with reductions in security officers and an inability to fund new security needs at ORNL, after an independent review found security weaknesses.

Federal officials have been issuing warnings about the possible effects of the spending cuts, which are also referred to as sequestration. The report said the White House Office of Management and Budget will sequester $85 billion in spending in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 unless Congress acts.

“This across-the-board cut will slow economic growth and job creation while cutting services and investments critical to the American people,” the report said. “Sequestration comes on top of $1.5 trillion in discretionary cuts already enacted, a large part of the reason the economy contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012.”

But The Washington Post reported Thursday morning that Congressional leaders are far from a deal to avoid the spending cuts, which could affect everything from military readiness and international affairs to schools and the economy.

Republicans and Democrats have been locked in a battle for months over the right mix of spending cuts and new revenues.

The Democrats’ report cited an investigation by the DOE Inspector General that noted concerns that “constrained federal funding had negatively impacted security controls at Y-12.” That investigation followed the highly publicized security breach on July 28, when three anti-nuclear weapons activists broke into Y-12 and splashed human blood and spray-painted slogans on a uranium storage building.

Any layoffs at Y-12 would have an adverse impact on efforts to improve security, the report said.

The Democrats’ report said other National Nuclear Security Administration sites would also face furloughs, or unpaid leave, including up to 2,500 employees for three weeks at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas; more than 500 for about two weeks at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; and up to 100 positions at Sandia National Laboratory.

“The NNSA plays a critical national security role in developing and maintaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent,” the report said. “In the area of our nuclear weapons stockpile, efforts to refurbish and extend the life of several weapons systems would be delayed, including the B-61, leading to increased costs and impacts to deployment and readiness in the future.”

The report said sequestration would “erode the security posture at sites and facilities by layoffs, workforce reassignments, and project deferrals.” It would also hamper internal oversight at DOE nuclear facilities “and reduce the depth and frequency of audits and evaluations needed to ensure ongoing robust security operations.”

The report also said there would be significant furloughs of the contractor workforce in defense environmental management, including more than 1,000 workers each at Hanford in Washington and Savannah River in South Carolina.

Affected facilities would be placed in a safe standby condition.

There would be no new awards to advance high performance computing to stay ahead of Chinese competitors and develop the next-generation system, known as exascale, before the United States reaches the limits of current technology, the report said.

It said sequestration would stop almost all construction projects replacing aging infrastructure at the national labs, and several major user facilities at the labs would be shut down, including the High Flux Isotope Reactor, the Lujan Neutron Scattering Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“Other facilities may be temporarily shuttered, delayed, or less available to their extensive user communities,” the report said.

In December, ORNL Director Thom Mason said the lab had prepared as well as it could for the automatic spending cuts.

The report also outlines the effects on the sequestration in many other areas, including air traffic control, food safety and inspection, community health centers, early childhood care, and education. It said more than 10,000 teachers and aides could lose jobs.

“Unless Congress immediately rejects these indiscriminate cuts and commits to a more thoughtful budgeting process, our fragile economic recovery will stall,” the report said. “These cuts will mean abrupt layoffs for tens of thousands of American workers at a time when our economy has just begun to recover. The job losses will be across all sectors and will have broad implications well beyond the federal workforce. The sequester will also cripple key investments in education, infrastructure improvements, and research.”

The report said employees must generally be given at least 30 days’ notice for furloughs lasting 22 or fewer workdays and 60 days’ notice for more than 22 days of furlough. If they happen, the furloughs would not begin immediately on March 1. Administrative furloughs are the only available personnel actions to meet sequestration in certain accounts, the report said.

The Congressional Budget Office has predicted that sequestration would cut growth in half this year. Bipartisan majorities in the U.S. House and Senate voted for the threat of sequestration in August 2011 as a “mechanism to force Congress to act on further deficit reduction,” an OMB report said. “The sequestration itself was never intended to be implemented.”

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