Community Q&A with NNSA Over Contract Reform

There were more questions than answers (of substance). And there were about as many comments as there were questions. The normal Friday-morning session of the East Tennessee Economic Council was converted into an extended community Q&A on the contract reform effort that’s supposed to improve efficiencies at the NNSA production facilities.

NNSA-LogoThere were more questions than answers (of substance). And there were about as many comments as there were questions. It was about what you’d expect at an early stage with any big-time government procurement, especially one with as many uncertainties as the upcoming contract that will merge the management of Y-12 and Pantex (and possibly inlcude the tritium work at Savannah River).

A big crowd turned out this a.m. for the NNSA’s presentation and discussion with community and business leaders. The normal Friday-morning session of the East Tennessee Economic Council was converted into an extended community Q&A on the contract reform effort that’s supposed to improve efficiencies at the NNSA production facilities, adopt “best practices” and get rid of redundancies, and save the government about $900M over a 10-year period. Following the hour-long ETEC session, the federal officials stuck around for another hour or so to field more questions.

There’s a lot of nervousness in Oak Ridge these days about the contract plans. The normal anxiety was inflamed by language in early descriptions of the contracting plan, especially the part about that doesn’t require the combined contractor to keep the existing workforce intact.

Garry Whitley and Steve Jones of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council were on hand for this morning’s event, and they were among those peppering Patty Wagner, chair of the NNSA’s Source Evaluation Board for the contract, and other SEB team members and advisors with questions about workforce protection. The unions want some sort of guarantee in writing that there won’t be wholesale changes in the workforce or some type of “succession clause” that would keep things intact — including the benefits package — for a while.

Wagner said the NNSA wants to give the new contractor flexibility to make operations more efficient, including workforce changes, and she said she couldn’t — and wouldn’t — make any commitments in that area. However, she noted that the National Labor Relations Act includes certain protections and noted that the new contractor would have to recgonize the bargaining unit in place and honor the existing contract or negotiate a new one. She also said the NNSA is intent on maintaining critical skills at the nuclear weapons sites and that people holding those jobs identified as critical would be given right of first refusal.

”We can handle change . . .but don’t make us do it on your schedule,” Whitley said. He and Jones said there are real concerns about immediately having to negotiate a new contract for bargaining-unit employees at Y-12 as soon as the new multi-site contractor takes over.

While the union official said there is plenty of concern from hourly employees, he said there’s just as much worrying among salaried employees. One of the attendees asked Wagner and her team if there were any plans to set up an outplacement office to help Y-12 employees who may not be retained in the contractor transition. There apparently is no such plan at this time.

Wagner, who’s currently on SEB assignment from her regular job as the NNSA’s Site Manager at Sandia National Laboratories, said she hopes the Draft Request for Proposals for the combined contract will be out before the end of June. But Wagner noted there are reviews of comments and other in-house requirements to be completed that make it impossible to say precisely when that document will be issued. She didn’t offer a timetable on much else, except to say the contract competition will take 12 to 18 months (from the time of the announcement in late March).

There is a general presumption that there will have to be some type of contract extension for the current managing and operating contractors at the different sites, including B&W Y-12 at Y-12. But NNSA still isn’t talking about that. The current Y-12 management contract is due to expire this fall. Wagner said she couldn’t address the extension issue because it’s a secretarial decision (Steven Chu is the Energy Secretary).

Wagner also said she couldn’t comment on the how the construction contract for the multi-billion-dollar Uranium Processing Facility will be handled. As part of the NNSA contract reform effort, the federal agency is establishing an integrated construction management contract to handle all big construction projects (over $5 million) in the nuclear weapons complex.

There has been no firm declaration on whether UPF (expected to come online around 2021) would be included in that new agency-wide construction management contract or whether it would be done as a subcontract to the managing contractor at Y-12.

Even though the management contracts are being merged, Wagner emphasized that each of the NNSA sites will retain their importance (Y-12 is the designated Uranium Center of Excellence). “The fact that we’re combining contracts does not de-value one community or another,” she said.

Nonetheless, there is great interest in where the new contractor — charged with possibly managing three different sites in three states — will maintain its “home office” or headquarters. Wagner noted that decision could be made based on a number of factors, such as which of the sites has the biggest budget or possible tax incentives, etc., and said the federal agency will seek input from bidders on how that decision should be made.

There were bunches of other questions about plans are for economic devleopment, community involvement, treatment of small businesses. Former Oak Ridge Mayor David Bradshaw wanted to know if there was anything in the contract plan regarding the preservation and ultimate community access to the Beta-3 calutrons.

Helen Hardin, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, said the congressman and his staff have had a difficult time getting information from the NNSA regarding the contracting plans. She emphasized the potential impacts on Oak Ridge, where two major contracts are going to be recompeted at the same time (the other being the new Environmental Management contract for the East Tennessee Technology Park).

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Source: Frank Munger | Knoxville News Sentinel
Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)