With Congress unable to agree on a spending bill and the federal government shut down for a week, the Y-12 National Security Complex has been told to start its own “orderly shutdown.”
Chuck Spencer, general manager of B&W Y-12, which manages and operates the plant, said officials hope that furloughs can be avoided, or that they won’t last long.
The shutdown activities are supposed to put the nuclear weapons plant into a safe and secure status.
A spokesman at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C., wasn’t immediately available to answer such questions as how long the shutdown might take or whether some nuclear-related activities might continue at Y-12. In addition to its weapons work, Y-12 retrieves and stores nuclear materials, fuels the nation’s naval reactors, and performs complementary work for other government and private-sector entities.
In a Monday message to employees, Spencer said B&W Y-12 will follow up soon with more details about the shutdown plan and expects to notify affected employees beginning this week or next.
“This is the same situation that many folks elsewhere in the government have already been experiencing,” Spencer said.
The fiscal fight over the federal spending bill in Washington, D.C., has centered on a debate over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which critics refer to as “Obamacare.” House Republicans have proposed a one-year delay of the law’s individual mandate and repealing a medical device tax meant to help pay for the changes as part of a congressional spending bill. But Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama have advocated for a clean spending bill that doesn’t make changes to the controversial health care law, the president’s signature domestic achievement.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Tennessee Republican whose district includes Oak Ridge, has supported the House legislation, as have Republican senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
It’s not clear if and when the dispute will be resolved, and there is a second fight looming over an Oct. 17 deadline to increase the nation’s debt limit.
The U.S. Department of Energy said last week that it expected federal employees to continue reporting for work unless there is a lapse in appropriations and all available money is spent. But it wasn’t clear how long the funding might last at each of the DOE components.
“Safety and security are our highest national priorities, and since Congress has not passed an appropriations act and given the continued uncertainty, it is prudent that we act to ensure extended safe and secure operations of our sites,” Spencer said in his Monday message to Y-12 employees. “To that end, we have received direction from the acting NNSA administrator to initiate an orderly shutdown in support of, at a minimum, obtaining safe and secure status.”
Spencer said Y-12’s human resources department is developing answers to questions about benefits and other concerns.
“I recognize this is troubling news and that it may likely have a significant impact on you and your family,” Spencer said. “We can only hope that the need for furloughs will be averted, or that they will be short-lived. In the meantime I ask you to focus on that which you can control and help place Y-12 in the best condition possible to ensure an orderly and timely return to operations.”
An all-hands meeting has been scheduled at Y-12 for Tuesday.
B&W Y-12 had 4,813 employees at the end of September. B&W Y-12 spokeswoman Ellen Boatner said the number of subcontractor employees can fluctuate, but the plant usually has about 2,000 subcontractors at any given time.
In a guide posted on its website before the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year, DOE said a prolonged lapse in appropriations could require employee furloughs later. The furloughs could be interrupted for a limited number of employees if there were imminent threats to human life or protection of property.
“Each component of DOE will continue to operate until prior year balances for funding of federal employees is exhausted,” DOE said in the guide. The federal government shut down Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the start of the new fiscal year.
In its guide, DOE said operations would 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.
The NNSA is a semi-independent part of DOE, and Y-12 is an NNSA site.
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.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Note: This story was last updated at 7:12 p.m.