Steve Hommel has had a difficult year by almost any standard: He lost his job on the Yucca Mountain project, uprooted his family to South Carolina and sold his Las Vegas-area house for a third of the price he paid for it.
But Hommel still considers himself "one of the lucky ones." Unlike many of his former Yucca co-workers, he found a new job and was able to settle his home mortgage with the bank. At 30, he is relatively young; he can start over and learn new skills.
"It was scary. It was not an easy decision," Hommel said in a recent interview about his move. "Just the thought of not being able to support my family made me start looking everywhere."
After three decades spent studying Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste storage, the Department of Energy is now preparing to close the site by Sept. 30. Funding for the site has decreased in recent years -- thanks partly to the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- but President Obama put the final nail in the coffin by zeroing out the project's funding in his fiscal 2011 budget request.
Hommel is among hundreds of contracted employees who have lost their jobs in the process. While DOE has scrambled to find landings for the project's federal employees, the contracted scientists, computer experts and managers were left with few options. Some had worked on the project for decades, and many have skills that are hard to transfer anywhere else.
"It's tragic and it's sad, and Harry Reid doesn't give a crap," said David Dobson, co-owner of Nuclear & Regulatory Support Services, one of the project's subcontractors. His company -- tasked with providing technical support to Sandia National Laboratories -- lost 90 percent of its income with the project's closure.
Dobson estimated that the company has laid off about 35 of its 40 Yucca employees, whose expertise ranged from hydrogeology to computer science. About half are still unemployed, he said.
"If you've worked on a single project for 20 years plus -- which some of these employees have -- and risen to senior levels, it's going to be hard to replicate that," Dobson said.
The dismal real estate market and high unemployment rate in nearby Las Vegas have also stunted employees' job searches. Nevada leads the nation with an unemployment rate of about 14 percent; it also has more foreclosures and bankruptcies than any other state.
"This is not an area that can absorb any of the high-tech people at all," said a senior hydrogeologist who was a contracted employee on the project for 16 years. "Las Vegas is boom or bust. It always has been."
Several contracted employees said they began looking for new jobs more than a year ago, anticipating further cuts to the project. But the news in December that the effort would be completely shut down still came as a shock to many, who had spent their careers preparing a now-defunct site.
"That was a shock that came to all of us. We really had no idea," said the hydrogeologist, who asked for anonymity. "It just went downhill from there."
Chasm between federal, contract employees
With a son in school and a mortgaged home, the hydrogeologist has abandoned attempts to work out of state and is hoping to eventually find consulting work. Some former Yucca contractors also are in a catch-22, he said: They cannot find jobs in Nevada, but they also cannot sell their homes to move elsewhere.
One subcontracted employee said he accepted a job out of state only to realize that he could not afford to take it. His stepson was in school, his house under mortgage and his finances insufficient to support two households. But by refusing the job, he said, he now cannot collect unemployment.
"This, however, makes my situation only slightly worse than the rest of my subcontractor colleagues, who will now have to get by on $1,600 per month while looking for work in a state with one of the highest (if not the highest) unemployment rates in the nation," he wrote in an e-mail. "Needless to say, in a state whose job market is dominated by casino, hospitality, and service-sector jobs, your typical Yucca Mountain Project scientist or engineer will have very few job prospects."
The divide between federal employees and contracted employees is wide, he said. While DOE employees were offered early retirement, new jobs and relocation allowances, contractors were "unceremoniously laid off with little or no job placement assistance," he said.
Reid has maintained that Yucca Mountain would have a negative effect on Las Vegas' safety and tourism in the long run. A longtime opponent of the project, he hopes Nevada instead develops a renewable energy industry that provides more jobs. He has also requested that the Government Accountability Office look into alternative uses for the Yucca site.
Most of the Yucca layoffs, meanwhile, occurred a couple of years ago, when DOE downsized its in-house and contracted staff as it shifted its focus solely to filing a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for construction. The employees who were left felt relatively secure because of their part in the licensing process.
However, DOE pulled its license application in March, eliminating the need for those jobs. The move has spawned several lawsuits from states and entities claiming that the withdrawal violates federal laws, but DOE has nevertheless continued its preparations in closing down the site. Of about 600 employees left, about 400 were contractors.
Some contracted employees have fared better than others. Many scientists working directly for Sandia National Laboratories -- rather than one of its subcontractors -- were offered jobs at other sites. Sandia officials did not respond to a request for comment by deadline, but several former contractors said the job offers were not a cure-all. Many were tethered to their Nevada homes, forcing some Sandia employees to leave their families in Las Vegas and fly home to see them.
The Yucca project's management contractor, U.S.A. Repository Services, will also not be losing its contract, according to an April affidavit filed in response to Washington state's lawsuit. But with little work remaining, it is unclear how many of USA-RS's 100 Yucca employees retained jobs. The company did not return calls requesting comment.