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LANL to cut up to 10 percent of permanent staff

February 21, 2012

USA TodayBy Jeri Clausing, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (WTW) — The nation's premier nuclear facility unveiled plans Tuesday to shed as many as 800 employees, or nearly 10 percent of its regular permanent workforce, as it faces a $300 million budget cut this year and the prospect of continued reductions.

Los Alamos National Laboratory said it has submitted a plan to reduce its regular full-time staff of 7,585 by between 400 and 800 this spring through "a voluntary separation program." It also employs more than 3,000 contractors, students and other lab workers but they would not be affected "at this time," a spokeswoman said.

Lab Director Charlie McMillan said plans to offer voluntary buyouts are part of "an attempt to reduce the risks of involuntary layoffs." He appointed a committee to look for savings last year after Congress cut the lab's budget to $2.2 billion from $2.5 billion.

"When combined with a suppressed attrition rate for the past three years, our current budget and future outlook require significant cost-cutting," he said in a statement. The plan must be approved by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear facilities.

The announcement came after the Obama administration announced last week that it planned to defer for at least five years construction of a controversial $6 billion plutonium research lab at Los Alamos. Construction had been expected to begin this year on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.

County officials said they were told the deferment would result in a loss of 1,000 planned construction jobs.

"It's disappointing because last year we were told that these missions were key to the defense of our country," said Sharon Stover, chairwoman of the Los Alamos County Council. "I'm not sure what's changed in the last few months, but we have a delegation that is going to D.C. next month. ... We hope our congressional leaders can get us some answers and reverse the trend."

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he was concerned about the impact that budget cuts would have at the lab.

"LANL is critical to our national security and state's economy and I will continue to push for adequate funding at both of New Mexico's national lab," Udall said in a statement.

Watchdog groups, however, said the cuts were good news.

"The post-Cold War nuclear weapons missions at LANL have grown much too much over the past 17 years," said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group. "Not only have the missions grown, but so has the cost per scientist."

Stover said Los Alamos and the surrounding communities are particularly upset about funding cuts for cleanup of legacy waste. The Obama administration last year sought $363 million to remove thousands of barrels of radioactive waste stored aboveground on the 40-square mile lab complex, but the final budget from Congress appropriated just half of that.

The potential danger from the waste gained national attention last summer when the largest wildfire in New Mexico history lapped at the edges of lab property.

The lab also is the economic driver for the city and surrounding communities in northern New Mexico. About 40 percent of the lab's nearly 12,000 total workforce lives in the county, which has about 17,950 residents.

Maintaining the health of the lab is the county's No. 1 goal for economic vitality, Stover said.

The lab last offered the buyouts in 2008, when 431 out of 8,110 regular permanent employees volunteered to leave.

"We were successful when we took similar action in 2008," McMillan said. "I am fully aware of the economic footprint this lab has in northern New Mexico, and we're taking every possible step to minimize the impacts."

McMillan said details of the separation packages would not be disclosed until the plan is approved.

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