SANTA FE, N.M. — Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories are preparing to halt operations by Oct. 21 and furlough most of their 18,000 New Mexico employees if the federal government shutdown is not resolved before then, lab officials confirmed Tuesday.
The dramatic order to prepare for lab shutdowns later this month was a directive of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Sandia president Paul Hommert told Sandia employees in an open letter Tuesday obtained by the Journal and other media.
The NNSA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, oversees the work at both of New Mexico’s national labs.
“If a shutdown is needed, programmatic work will not be conducted. Those functions that NNSA directs us to continue will be extremely limited,” Hommert said in the letter.
Sandia spokeswoman Heather Clark declined to say how many employees would be furloughed if the Albuquerque-based lab shuts down. Clark also declined to confirm what date a lab shutdown might occur.
At Los Alamos, employees had not yet been notified about how the NNSA-directed shutdown would be carried out. However, Los Alamos already has begun furloughing contract workers, according to a lab official.
A lab statement responding to media questions said: “LANL has now reached the point where we need to begin standing down certain operations where there is no longer funding available to maintain full operations. Protecting special nuclear material, national security information, workers, the public and the environment remains an essential function.”
At least 290 Los Alamos subcontractors, including workers who process transuranic nuclear waste shipments or work on environmental monitoring projects, were directed by Los Alamos to halt that work, the lab official said. Other Los Alamos employees have been directed to report to work as usual.
As a result of the subcontractor furloughs, shipments of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad will stop, the official said.
If a lab shutdown were to take effect at Los Alamos after Oct. 21, an estimated 9,400 of the lab’s nearly 10,000 employees would be furloughed, the official said.
The remaining 600 workers would be assigned to protect nuclear material at the lab, manage the lab’s computer systems or be prepared to respond to an emergency situation.
In his letter to Sandia employees, Hommert acknowledged “it is conceivable that the congressional impasse will be resolved in the coming days. I recognize the uncertainty and hardship this places on you and your families, and my hope is that, should we experience a shutdown, it is short.”
Sandia held an “all-hands” meeting with employees Tuesday afternoon and provided an online address to which employees could submit questions.
News of the planned halt of operations at the New Mexico labs came as House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama dug in their heels deeper in a budget dispute resulting in a federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1.
Although the House adopted a measure on Saturday to ensure government workers who are furloughed can receive back pay, that protection likely would not extend to lab employees who are considered federal contract workers of the labs’ independent operators.
Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, in a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Tuesday, requested that Sandia and Los Alamos lab employees get a special consideration to qualify for back pay if furloughed.
“Due to the tremendous economic uncertainty currently faced by the laboratories’ workforce, we urge you to certify as soon as possible that back pay will be allowable upon the restoration of government functions,” the letter said. “The employees of our nation’s national laboratories deserve to know that they will be fully compensated for their service to our nation.”
The letter was signed by Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján.