SANTA FE, N.M. — Los Alamos National Laboratory, recognizing that it can’t stop its sprawling 36-square-mile nuclear enterprise on a dime, will begin putting its facilities in “safe and secure status” Tuesday in preparation for a full shutdown at the end of the day Oct. 18, lab Director Charles McMillan said in a memo to lab staff Wednesday.
McMillan’s memo made clear that unless employees want to burn unused vacation time, the majority of the lab’s workers will begin “unpaid furlough” Oct. 21 unless the federal budget impasse is resolved.
Health care benefits will continue, McMillan said, but lingering questions about the impact of a possible shutdown on issues like employee pension calculations remain unresolved.
“We are working closely with NNSA and DOE to provide reliable guidance on these and other issues,” McMillan told lab staff.
Beyond the bureaucratic complications, Los Alamos workers face what amounts to mothballing a small city. The lab runs its own water utility, including a sewage treatment plant and massive cooling systems to handle the heat generated by its huge research supercomputers. It also has a parallel system to manage liquid radioactive waste, and manages solid radioactive waste intended for permanent disposal as well as supplies of plutonium and other hazardous materials used in active nuclear weapons research, development and manufacturing.
Details of how the mothballing would be done were unclear Wednesday, with lab officials declining to comment or answer questions beyond a statement from lab spokesman Fred deSousa that Los Alamos is “preparing the lab for safe and secure closure.”
“All nuclear materials remain safe, secure and protected and we retain the capability to respond to national emergencies,” deSousa said.
Lab officials refused again Wednesday to say how many Los Alamos workers would be furloughed, but a lab source told the Journal this week that about 600 of the lab’s roughly 10,000 had been deemed “essential” and would stay on the job. Nearly 300 lab subcontractors, including some involved in radioactive cleanup work, have already been idled.