With shutdown looming, DOE expects to keep operating for now

U.S. Department of Energy Forrestal Building

With a potential government shutdown looming, U.S. Department of Energy employees are expected to continue working unless there is a lapse in appropriations and all available money is spent. Pictured above is DOE’s Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy DOE)

Although a federal government shutdown is looming, the U.S. Department of Energy expects federal employees to continue reporting for work unless there is a lapse in appropriations and all available money is spent.

“Each component of DOE will continue to operate until prior year balances for funding of federal employees is exhausted,” DOE said in a guide posted on its website. “Their operations under those circumstances will be somewhat modified. For example, travel will generally be curtailed. DOE has some limited transfer and reprogramming authority, which may enable DOE to extend the number of days of funding available in some limited cases.”

The guide said operations will stop once prior-year balances have been spent at most DOE facilities. There would be exceptions for functions related to the safety of human life and protection of property.

But a prolonged lapse in appropriations could require employee furloughs later, DOE said. The furloughs could be interrupted for a limited number of employees if there were imminent threats to human life or protection of property.

DOE said most of its appropriations are multi-year or “no-year.”

Asked about local impacts, most DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration offices and contractors in Oak Ridge referred questions about the potential impact of a federal government shutdown to officials at headquarters in Washington, D.C. The NNSA in Washington, D.C., referred a reporter to the DOE guide.

Last week, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason said employees of UT-Battelle, which manages the lab, should report to work Tuesday, Oct. 1, even if the government shuts down. Mason said ORNL has enough funding to continue operations at the start of the new federal fiscal year.

Congress has a midnight deadline to finance the government. If Senate Democrats and House Republicans are unable to reach a deal, the United States could have its first government shutdown in 17 years. The Senate returns Monday afternoon, and it is expected to overwhelmingly reject a bill passed by the House this weekend that would delay the full effect of President Barack Obama’s health care law as a condition for continuing to finance the government past today.

The DOE plan would appear to retain a few thousand workers out of roughly 14,000 employees if funding lapses. The retained workers would include those who are “excepted”; appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate; financed by funding sources other than annual appropriations; or required to protect life and property.

DOE said most excepted employees are connected to NNSA programs falling significantly into three program areas: maintenance and safeguarding of nuclear weapons, international non-proliferation activities, and servicing deployed naval reactors.

The department said it will be able to shut down all non-excepted federal functions within a half-day, after available balances are exhausted, with some exceptions involving the movement of nuclear materials.

“However, it will take longer than a half-day to do that for some contractor-performed activities in order to protect property,” DOE said. “For example, some large equipment may need to be cooled down before it can be shut down, while other equipment may need to stay operational at a low level in order for it not to be permanently damaged.”

Under the protection of property exception, DOE would physically protect sites (guns, guards, and gates) and maintain government equipment and property (e.g., caring for laboratory animals and ensuring that scientific equipment and nuclear reactors are safely maintained).

There are some DOE programs, for example, medical isotope programs, where the department may need to produce more isotopes to protect human life. The need to do this will depend on the length of the lapse and the stockpile of each isotope.

DOE has a written order issued Sept. 30, 2011, that outlines its working plan if appropriations lapse. The order addresses the department’s plan and procedures for

  1. continuing operations using balances from prior years, if available, during a lapse in appropriations; and
  2. after spending all available balances, (a) continuing only those excepted functions related to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, and (b) initiating orderly shutdown of those activities not considered excepted.

The order can be viewed here.

The DOE guide to its plan for a lapse in appropriations can be viewed here.

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