Ex-weapons plant contractor planning 1,400 layoffs

The company that manages a former nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina announced Wednesday that it plans next year to lay off 1,400 contractors, 800 of whom were funded with federal stimulus money.

The total cuts represent more than 20 percent of the workers employed by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions at the Savannah River Site, the former weapons complex near Aiken. The 800 jobs also represent about a quarter of the site's 3,100 jobs that were either saved or created by federal stimulus cash.

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions manages the 310-square-mile Savannah River Site, which once produced plutonium and tritium for atomic bombs. Work there is now focused mostly on research and cleaning up areas of the site contaminated during weapons production and sealing off former reactor sites with concrete.

In a memorandum to employees, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President Garry Flowers said the company will begin offering severance packages next week to people who volunteer to leave or retire.

"The completion of significant projects ... leaves us in a position where our work force composition no longer matches the activities currently planned for Fiscal Year 2011 and beyond," Flowers said.

For remaining employees, there will be two rounds of layoffs in January and August, Flowers said.

The cuts come less than two years after the Savannah River Site — which uses other contractors in addition to Savannah River Nuclear Solutions — received $1.6 billion in stimulus cash to create and save about 3,000 jobs.

While fielding thousands of applications at job fairs statewide, officials were quick to say that those jobs were only temporary and would likely expire once the time-limited funds ran out. The jobs ranged from procurement and public relations to work doing construction and general maintenance.

Residents of surrounding counties — typically home to some of the highest jobless rates in South Carolina, which posted statewide unemployment of 11 percent in September — were happy for a shot at even short-term employment. Local officials cheered the burst of economic steam generated by the $1.6 billion influx of cash, and businesses such as restaurants and gas stations along the highway leading to the site's main gate tallied brisk business.

Of the 3,100 stimulus-funded jobs, about 2,200 went to Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. About 800 of those jobs are among the 1,400 planned layoffs, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions spokesman Will Callicott said Wednesday.

Whatever stimulus-funded jobs that remain after the layoffs are soon to run out, however. Callicott said Wednesday that Savannah River's stimulus projects are on target to be completed by the end of September 2011.

More than 10,000 people overall work at the Savannah River Site, with about 6,700 of those people working directly for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, Callicott said.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which maintains the Savannah River Site, approved Savannah River Nuclear Solutions' layoffs plan. To help departing employees, DOE said Wednesday it is awarding $5 million in grants to colleges and universities around the site to develop training courses for jobless Savannah River workers.