Hundreds of jobs to be cut at Washington state nuclear site

SEATTLE -- More than 200 jobs are to be axed at Washington state's Hanford Nuclear Reservation under budget cuts, officials said on Monday, raising fears that the job losses could hamper a clean-up there after a spill from waste storage tanks reported last month.

Nearly 240 workers at the site were dismissed effective on March 28 and more than 2,600 employees were given notices of furloughs set to begin on April 1 at the Department of Energy's office in Richland, Wash., two of the nuclear facility's spokesmen said.

"We anticipate that progress related to some high-priority cleanup projects at Hanford may be curtailed," said Cameron Hardy, one of the spokesman.

The Energy Department said last month, that six waste tanks were leaking at the World War Two-era nuclear weapons site, although the spill of low-grade waste posed no immediate risk to the public.

There are about 9,000 employees at Hanford, which has an annual budget of about $2 billion, nearly one-third of the $5.65 billion total U.S. budget for nuclear waste clean-up, Hardy said.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat who took office in January, told Reuters that federal budget cuts may force Hanford contractors "to lay off or furlough more than 4,700 workers."

"Last month's news that six tanks are leaking radioactive waste at the site makes these lost work hours all the more concerning," said Inslee.

Hanford's Office of River Protection oversees six faulty tanks that are projected to leak 1,000 gallons of radioactive sludge annually.

That office's spokesman, Erik Olds, said the department is committed to cleaning up the waste "as safely and efficiently as possible" and contractors have been asked to assess the impact of the job losses.

"We do not yet know what effect these cuts will have on tank waste cleanup," said Dieter Bohrmann, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology.

The 586-square-mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation was established near the south-central Washington state town of Hanford in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government program that developed the first atomic bombs.

Production of weapons at Hanford resulted in more than 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste and 130 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Cleaning up Hanford is projected to cost nearly $115 billion by the end of the century.

The Department of Energy said this month that its "preferred alternative" cleanup method is to retrieve up to 3.1 million gallons (11.7 million liters) of radioactive waste sludge in up to 20 of Hanford's 177 tanks and stabilize the waste.

The sludge would then be trucked more than 1,500 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico for disposal.

Whether New Mexico would accept the waste remains to be determined, and the plan faces several regulatory hurdles before it could be shipped, said Deb Gill, an Energy Department spokeswoman in Carlsbad.