Yucca’s 625 workers face uncertain futures

Chains holding the white Department of Energy flag creaked against the flagpole in the gentle breeze and sent an eerie sound across the half-filled parking lot at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project Tuesday.

The asphalt lot had more empty spaces than employees’ cars. It was a sign that the once-bustling, multibillion-dollar effort to study and build a repository for the nation’s most deadly nuclear waste was coming to a halt.

Employees with long faces and quick words of “no comment” entered the building as they returned from the noon hour not sure what their next jobs will be.

For the first time in the 23-year history of the project, they had been told by DOE officials in Washington, D.C., to close down the building on Hillshire Drive and prepare for funding to terminate in September.

“Everybody is really saddened and depressed,” said Tracie, a contract worker for the project who would only give her first name after a security guard in uniform interrupted her conversation.

“They’re telling us it’s done. The budget is zero. I think it’s very sad. It’s a shame,” she said.

Monday afternoon, shortly after Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters the effort to license the repository was suspended and the application before nuclear regulators would be withdrawn in 30 days, the 625 federal and contract workers in Las Vegas and at the Forrestal Building on Independence Avenue in the nation’s capital were given the news they had dreaded.

Dave Zabransky, acting principal deputy director of DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, had told them in a video conference that the DOE was closing down the program. Internal working groups would be formed to handle the task of trying to place workers in other government projects.

There were other matters to resolve, including what will be done with the mock, zirconium nuclear fuel assembly that stands like a monolith in the lobby of the two-story building. The assembly of metal tubes like the ones loaded with used, radioactive hot fuel pellets that sit in water pools at reactors sites and in dry casks above ground would probably wind up in the Atomic Testing Museum on East Flamingo Road, one DOE official said.

Even the words “Yucca Mountain Project” had been chiseled away a few months ago from the concrete slab at the entrance to the parking lot.

The flat-topped volcanic rock ridge 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, where government scientists and engineers had planned to entomb 77,000 tons of highly radioactive used fuel mostly from U.S. power reactors, was no longer the disposal option under the Obama administration even though Congress had approved the site in 2002.

Over the years, project officials had seen federal and contractor employee numbers climb to 2,750 in 2005, the peak year for the nuclear waste program.

Budget cutbacks that paralleled and the nation’s economic downturn reduced the numbers to 1,400 in March, dipping to 800 in April and decreasing to 625, the current number.

“People are routinely leaving but nobody is being hired,” one project official said.

After Monday’s announcement, a DOE employee who described himself as a project manager, said, “From a personal standpoint, I believe our government is near-sighted. We’ve got $13 billion invested and they walk away from it. That’s not a good business decision,” he said.

Another DOE employee, who would not give his name, handed out a statement that criticized Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., for demonstrating “once again … how out of touch (he) is with the Nevada state needs and citizens’ desire for jobs.”

“The focus must be on jobs, and his opposition will cost the state of Nevada 40,000-plus jobs over the next 50-plus years. … This is a political decision and not based on science.”

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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