WASHINGTON — Employees on the Yucca Mountain Project have stepped up appeals to rescue jobs amid confirmation that an anticipated new round of federal budget cuts will put another 500 or more of them out of work.
Officials for the new prime contractor, USA Repository Services, told employees last week that the staff of roughly 600 contract workers will be cut by 500, according to Department of Energy spokesman Allen Benson.
"The numbers aren’t final but it’s certainly in that range," Benson said.
He said DOE has given the management company only about $10 million in funding to begin April 1, and to carry through to Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The sum is "enough for 100 employees," Benson said.
He said Sandia National Laboratories, another participant in the program with 332 people, also will be reducing staff. No details were available Friday.
The Energy Department is shrinking again in Nevada in the expectation that Congress in the next few weeks will cut another $100 million in spending from the nuclear waste program that has been controversial within the state and unpopular with many Nevadans and state leaders.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has engineered a series of deep cutbacks, is sympathetic to the workers but believes strongly the project is misguided and flawed, a spokesman said.
With President Barack Obama also saying he opposes the project, Reid has said its budget will be reduced eventually to zero or only a nominal sum.
The latest round of reductions will bring the project’s staff to fewer than 900, from a high of about 2,750 three years ago, DOE officials said. Besides the prime contractor and Sandia National Laboratories, there are about 250 federal workers and smaller groups of support personnel.
At the low level, virtually all remaining hands would focus on responding to questions the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has submitted regarding the department’s repository license application, and preparing for upcoming hearings, according to current and former managers.
Planning to develop a railroad corridor through rural Nevada to the repository site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas would be put aside, they said, as well as engineering work toward construction of an underground repository for 77,000 tons of used nuclear fuel and other radioactive material.
Christopher Kouts, the project’s acting director, declined to comment on the situation.
"We are proceeding with the resources the department has to fully support the licensing process," Kouts said at an energy conference this week.
In the meantime, some employees have stepped up their efforts to head off further cuts.
A Web site called YuccaMatters.com appeared earlier this month urging support for the repository. It supplies addresses and phone numbers of Gov. Jim Gibbons and Nevada’s federal representatives, talking points in favor of the project and sample form letters.
The site does not indicate a contact.
The domain name was created Jan. 30 and was registered to Candice Trummell, a Las Vegas-based federal employee.
Trummell, an intergovernmental affairs specialist, said this week the site was established by a handful of people, some associated with Yucca Mountain and some not. She said they maintain the site on their own time and it does not involve government equipment or money from outside organizations.
"There are a lot of people who are interested in writing to their congressman but they don’t know where to start," Trummell said. "We wanted to provide them a resource."
A DOE ethics attorney conducted an internal review of Trummell’s involvement after the department learned about the Web site. It concluded Trummell did not violate personnel rules "because she has done all this on her own," Benson said.
Trummell was a well-known advocate of the Yucca repository before she was hired by the Energy Department last summer to serve as the program’s liaison to Nevada counties. From 2003 to 2007, she was a Nye County commissioner and chief spokeswoman on Yucca Mountain.
From 2006 to mid-2008, she was an associate in Robison/Seidler, a consulting firm that has advised rural Nevada counties about the project.
"It is not uncommon for people to fight for their jobs and to fight for things they believe are for the betterment of their state," Trummell said. "The Web site was established because I and others believe that Yucca Mountain is good and necessary for the country and it could be great for the state of Nevada."
After viewing the Web site, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a repository foe, said the effort "is about as authentic as an Elvis impersonator."
"These individuals are entitled to their opinions, but they are not free to spread false claims when it comes to the true dangers of dumping toxic radioactive garbage in Nevada or the risk from nuclear waste shipments barreling through the Las Vegas Valley," she said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephens media.com or 202-783-1760. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@review journal.com or 702-383-0308.
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Job counseling and jobless claim information to help former Yucca Mountain Project employees:Job counseling and jobless claim information to help former Yucca Mountain Project employees