With no end in sight for the US government shutdown that began on 1 October, the Department of Energy (DOE) is now preparing to shut down the sprawling complex of national laboratories that maintains nuclear weapons and performs a range of basic and applied research.
Thus far the facilities have been sheltered from the government shutdown because they are operated by subcontractors — including universities and businesses — under longer-term contracts. But with their remaining DOE money beginning to run dry, national laboratories have begun curtailing work and preparing to close their doors. At least three major DOE facilities — including two of the core nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico — are scheduled to shut down within two weeks.
Without funding, Los Alamos will shut down on 18 October. Officials there are now preparing a list of essential employees who will stay on to ensure safety and security of the laboratory’s core facilities, nuclear materials and any critical scientific experiments. The lab will also “retain the capability to respond to national emergencies,” says spokesman Fred deSousa. As of 9 October, it remained unclear how many of the roughly 10,300 workers would be furloughed.
In an 8 October memo to employees, Sandia director Paul Hommert warned employees that the laboratory is preparing to shut down at the close of business on 21 October. Hommert did not say how many of the laboratories 8,700 employees would be retained, but cautioned that ongoing activities would be extremely limited.
At the Hanford Site in Richland, Washington, workers are already preparing scale back cleanup activities at the former nuclear processing site in preparation. Hanford has 8,000 contractors and another 450 federal employees, and officials expect that the vast majority of those employees would be furloughed beginning 21 October. The Y-12 National Security Complex, a manufacturing facility near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that supports the nuclear weapons programme, has already begun shutting down operations in preparation for closure on 17 October.
Other laboratories are faring better. Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, has enough money to continue operations through the end of the month, and perhaps into November. Both the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee will continue operations into November. Laboratory officials have been ordered to direct all media queries to DOE officials in Washington DC, but officials there declined to provide any details regarding the pending closures.
One laboratory official who declined to be identified laments the gridlock among politicians in Washington DC. That person says it is just a matter of time before everything comes to a halt. “We’ll all be in the same boat if they don’t come up with a solution soon,” he says.
|Facility||Furlough date||Employees affected||Research areas|
|Y-12 National Security Complex||17 October||4,800||Engineering and manufacturing for nuclear weapons|
|Los Alamos National Laboratory||18 October||More than 10,300||Nuclear weapons, security, energy, environment|
|Sandia National Laboratory||21 October||8,700||Nuclear weapons, engineering, energy, environment|
|Hanford Site||21 October||8,450||Nuclear clean-up|
|Pacific Northwest National Laboratory||November||4,700||Materials science, energy, environment and national security|
|Oak Ridge National Laboratory||Early November||4,400||Nuclear energy, environment, national security|