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Stimulus Money Creates Jobs at Cold War-Era Nuke Site

The government jobs report showed only 11,000 jobs lost last month, which means somebody is hiring… somewhere.

Stimulus Scorecard
Stimulus Scorecard

One of those places is the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, a 310-square mile property dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. There has been a hiring boom because of $1.6 billion in Recovery Act funds—more than 1,400 jobs have been created and about 800 have been saved, according to officials overseeing the project.

“I think I would be with the rest of the world right now, as far as the recession goes, struggling to get a job, struggling to go to school,” said Kera Woods, a 20-year old who struggled to find direction with so few job options available to her. That’s not the case anymore. “It’s not a job. It’s a career. Right now, I am building up a resume, getting as much skill as I can.”

People have come to South Carolina from all across the country for one reason: To find a job.

“I have 6 children, grandchildren. I miss them, but I am doing what I need to do,” says Lori Hill, who left her six children in Michigan to work at the site. She now has found a place to live, but isn’t quite on firm enough financial ground to bring her whole family to South Carolina. Yet. “I am never going back” Hill says.

The sprawling site is never going back to what it was—producing plutonium and tritium for a massive nuclear-weapons program. Some tritium is still made here to re-stock current weapons, but most of the reactors stopped operations in the late 1980’s. The rest of the facility is dealing with the massive cleanup from the decades of nuclear work.

Everything from contaminated clothing and machine parts to the actual nuclear material itself has to be cleaned and contained. Some of the low-level material will simply be buried, while the most hazardous is shipped to the California desert for storage.

There are several publicly traded companies behind this effort. The Savannah River Site is managed by a limited liability company that is backed by companies including Fluor , Honeywell and Northrop Grumman .

Fluor is the lead management company, and they told us that profit from the $1.6 billion can be no higher than 5.36 percent. For multi-billion dollar companies, that’s a rather thin margin, yet Fluor sees the benefits going beyond near-term profit.

“It also creates an opportunity for us for future work, both within the Department of Energy and with other government contracting, and with the commercial power industry that’s now emerging, said Dennis Carr, a long-time engineer who is now a lead executive on the Recovery Act project for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.

The company is making a bet that nuclear site management and cleanup is a major growth sector for the 21st century.

'It helps us build our portfolio as companies in this market. It helps us demonstrate success that we can perform in this market, and it also positions us for future markets, which is the emerging nuclear industry”, Carr said.

For the same reason, workers are not discouraged that many of the jobs could go away after the stimulus money runs out after 30 months.

“I don’t approach it as a temporary job,” says Saleumson Souksabatdy, a 25-year old who went from the Navy to wearing hazardous materials suits, cleaning up low-level nuclear material. “I approach it as an experience. Although it is temporary, whatever knowledge and experience I can obtain from people who have been here 20 or 30 years, the better is for me.”

So far, about a quarter of the $787 billion stimulus money has been spent, which means more projects like the Savannah River Site may get funding in 2010.

Be sure to get in touch with us: stimulus@cnbc.com