News Column

Los Alamos Labs May Shut Down

October 10, 2013

Staci Matlock, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Oct. 10--The nukes will be secured, the science will stop, and thousands of Los Alamos National Laboratory employees will be sent home if the federal budget impasse between Congress and the White House continues through next week.

"It's very frustrating. I'm sure I feel like America does," said Liddie Martinez, a lab security officer who works with a subcontractor.

The official word came Wednesday: The lab will shut down for business at the end of the day Friday, Oct. 18, if there's no spending agreement, and nonessential employees will be furloughed without pay starting Oct. 21. The workers deemed "essential" for securing the lab's facilities across 36 square miles and protecting the nuclear stockpile will remain on the job with pay.

"Protecting nuclear material, national security information, workers, the public and the environment remains an essential function," LANL spokesman Fred deSousa said Wednesday.

The looming furlough will affect most of the 10,000 LANL staff, scientists, post-doctoral students and subcontractors. So far, subcontractors have endured the brunt of the budget crisis, and some 290 had been told to stand down from their jobs and return to their companies as of Wednesday. The companies will decide if those contractors are laid off or transferred to other jobs.

Sandia National Laboratories' 8,000 employees also will be furloughed Oct. 21 if Congress has failed to pass a budget, according to Albuquerque Business First.

Martinez, who works for the lab's protective force security provider, also directs LANL's subcontractors consortium, which comprises 32 of the largest subs, including the environmental contractors. Martinez said an all-employee meeting has been scheduled for Thursday morning at the lab. The LANL subcontractors consortium has scheduled its next meeting for Oct. 23.

"As far as we know, the environmental remediation work has stopped because of a lack of funds," Martinez said. "All the environmental remediation contractors will be affected."

Some of the subcontractors affected -- Portage, TerranearPMC, EnergySolutions and Los Alamos Technical Associates -- did not respond to requests for comment.

LANL on Monday suspended the program for processing and shipping transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico. Transuranic waste generally includes lab clothing, rags, tools and demolition debris contaminated with plutonium particles. Liquids are not shipped.

A system set up to monitor water coming down canyons near LANL for contaminants will continue operating. The system provides an early warning to managers of the Santa Fe city and county's Buckman Direct Diversion on the Rio Grande, so they can stop river diversions if needed. The river diversion supplies drinking water to city and county water customers.

The lab is still reeling from the last two years of funding cuts, which shrank LANL's budget by $450 million. The lab lost another $130 million in the spring, when automatic funding cuts under sequestration occurred, but about $83 million of that was restored for environmental cleanup work and a plutonium research program. Altogether, the funding losses meant about 1,500 fewer employees.

Closing down a national laboratory responsible for part of the nuclear stockpile and a lot of long-term, ongoing research projects is no easy task. The lab has been preparing, just in case. "In an operation of this size and complexity, it is prudent for us to plan for these contingencies," deSousa said.

New Mexico's congressional delegation, meanwhile, supports legislation passed in the House to ensure any furloughed national lab employees will receive back pay when they return to work. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, are co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate. The retroactive pay for federal employees has passed the House, and the president has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

While Los Alamos waits for the furlough shoe to drop, the mood is mixed in town.

"I haven't had much of a sense of anxiety among customers who live and work here," said Denise Lane, owner of Dixie Girl Restaurant and a former county councilor. "It doesn't feel like it is impacting our business yet."

But, she said, "if this drags on and more lab employees are furloughed, it will be devastating for us."

Lane said the tourists who've been dropping by the restaurant since Oct. 1, when national parks and other federal recreation sites were closed, are angry. "They are pissed off. They came from other states on vacations they planned for months to visit Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera and Tsankawi. They can't go to any of them."

Susan Marken said the mood in Los Alamos is "bleak."

"On the sidewalk, in the bagel shop, I hear people talking about the furlough," Marken said in a telephone interview. Marken has moved to Washington, D.C., but was in Los Alamos on Wednesday, where she and her husband are trying to sell their house.

Marken's husband, Ken Marken, was one of those caught in the last lab budget cut. He was head of the Superconductivity Technology Center that was dismantled due to funding cuts in 2012. The family moved to Washington, where he works for the Department of Energy's high-energy physics program. Wednesday was technically the last day the program had money to keep operating.

Susan Marken said not everyone in Los Alamos is wealthy, and some will definitely be hurt by the furlough. "Some people who have worked there for a long time are pretty well cushioned," Marken said. "But there is administrative staff, technicians, post-doctoral students. They are probably carrying student loans. If they lose work, that would be dreadful for them."

Without work, people go elsewhere for other jobs or at least less money at local Los Alamos businesses. The impact trickles down, she said. "As the lab goes, the town goes," she said.

Marken said in D.C. right now, "the prayers at church are all about the families that are going to feel the impact. The conversations over lunch are all about the shutdown."

Freelance writer Roger Snodgrass contributed to this report for The New Mexican.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.


(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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Original headline: Lab workers face shutdown on Oct. 18

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Source: (c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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