NNSA Check, Group Photo

National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, fourth from left, on Monday announced an additional $5 million investment into a local workforce fund. 

The National Nuclear Security Administration's first in command, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, on Monday announced a multimillion-dollar investment in a workforce-development initiative designed to address U.S. Department of Energy needs and bolster the Savannah River Site's future.

Gordon-Hagerty that evening introduced a five-year, total $5 million boost to the Workforce Opportunities in Regional Careers program, which is administered by the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization, a local nonprofit.

WORC funds support students, among other things, training in a breadth of SRS-applicable fields. The community reuse organization partners with Aiken Technical College, Augusta Technical College, USC Aiken, USC Salkehatchie and Augusta University to support the Energy Department's long-term workforce needs, particularly as they relate to SRS.

"The schools here in the Central Savannah River Area ... have been instrumental in providing the educational foundation to our workforce for decades," Gordon-Hagerty said, standing on stage in an Aiken Technical College auditorium.

Rick Osbon, NNSA announcement

Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon was one of several officials, both local and federal, to speak after National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty. Osbon was thankful for the added investment.

Between May 2016 and June 2019, hundreds of scholarships have been awarded via the WORC program. More than 100 local students have been chosen for internships at the site, and more than 70 students were hired for full-time positions there.

"This initiative aims to build a highly skilled workforce for critical STEM careers in our region and to increase the awareness of current and future skill needs in the industry," Aiken Technical College President Forest Mahan said.

"We are proud to be a partner in building a skilled workforce to support the site's missions," he later added.

Since 2016, the NNSA and the DOE Office of Environmental Management – the SRS landlord – have funded the WORC program a combined $1 million per year. The announcement Monday heralds a significant funding surge.

Both Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon and SRS manager Michael Budney believe the extra funding will do big things for the region and site, more specifically.

"What a great initiative this is. I just want to say thank you to the administrator and the NNSA," the mayor said. "This is going to make a difference for our community, and we appreciate it."

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, had similar things to say. He attended the announcement – giant check, included – alongside U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, a fellow Republican representing Georgia.

"Can you imagine, five colleges and universities working together, how wonderful this is," Wilson said.

The investment comes at a flexion point in SRS's ongoing story.

While remediation remains the current overarching goal at the site, the NNSA footprint there is poised to expand.

"Our workforce is going to be increasing, rather than decreasing, because our workload is going to be doing the same," Gordon-Hagerty said. "And it is imperative to us to make sure that we have a highly skilled workforce here at the Savannah River Site."

Plutonium pit production – pumping out nuclear weapon cores year after year – at a repurposed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility would generate hundreds of jobs.

About 10 to 15 percent of expected growth in the number of Savannah River National Laboratory employees alone is tied to pit production design and preparations, lab director Vahid Majidi has said. A pit mission at SRS, though, is far from locked in and is the subject of congressional critique.

Increased tritium and plutonium-disposition work brings similar worker demands, a point raised Monday by Gordon-Hagerty, the under secretary for nuclear security.

The NNSA has at least considered becoming the SRS landlord, a move some local officials support.

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin