- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Workers decontaminating and decommissioning a Cold War-era uranium plant in southern Ohio are again being notified about hundreds of potential layoffs because of an anticipated funding gap, a reprise of warnings they heard a year ago for the same reason.

The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon produced enriched uranium for defense and commercial uses until 2001. Its shutdown left behind chemicals and radioactive areas to be addressed and huge buildings to be demolished - work that is taking decades and employs about 1,800 people in a pocket of high unemployment.

Notices about the possible layoffs were sent Wednesday to 1,400 employees as officials anticipate a funding gap of $55 million to $80 million heading into the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, said Jeff Wagner, a spokesman for the main contractor, Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth.

The company is first seeking voluntary departures, such as retirements, and hopes to have fewer than 570 layoffs among its own employees, affiliated personnel and subcontractors, Wagner said Thursday.

Those layoffs could occur around Oct. 22, but the project’s director and other leaders remain hopeful they’ll get funding needed to continue their current pace, which costs roughly $387 million annually, Wagner said.

Hundreds of layoffs were averted last year because Congress approved extra funding. This time, the situation is a bit different.

About 70 percent of the project’s funding comes from a program in which the government sells uranium, but the amount that can be bartered has been reduced for 2016, so project officials must hope the balance is made up through appropriations, Wagner said.

Scioto County Commissioner Mike Crabtree told the Chillicothe Gazette the funding uncertainty amounts to “bullying” by the U.S. Department of Energy, which runs the cleanup.

“We were basically told the DOE wants us to deal with the cuts this year or suffer a greater job loss next year,” Crabtree said.

The Energy Department has said it is committed to the safe, effective cleanup of the site but that “the projected funding profile” might require workforce adjustments.

Another key development is recent agreement on plans for demolishing buildings and disposing of waste from the site. Having that roadmap for the cleanup could be a boon for lawmakers, local officials and others who have advocated for steadier funding, Wagner said.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said lawmakers will once again have to scramble to find funding. As he has repeatedly, the Ohio Republican called for adequate annual funding in the federal budget for the cleanup.

“It’s actually less expensive to the taxpayer over time to start moving to actual cleanup rather than almost maintaining the site, which is about all you can do with the low levels of funding,” Portman said Thursday in Columbus. “It may seem like it’s more money up front, but it’s actually billions of dollars less money over time, billions, because they’re now pushing the cleanup really out to the 2050s.”

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This story has been corrected to show that notices were sent to 1,400 employees about possible layoffs, not 1,400 layoffs.

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Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report.

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