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By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE, March 6 (Reuters) - Automatic U.S. budget cuts will strip away roughly $171 million in funding and lead to thousands of layoffs at a decommissioned nuclear weapons site leaking radioactive waste in Washington state, the Department of Energy said on Tuesday.
The DoE said it will cut payments to contractors who will in turn have to lay off or temporarily furlough thousands of workers, some as early as April 1.
The cuts were expected to bring further uncertainty to cleanup efforts at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a site in southern Washington state where six underground tanks were discovered last month to be leaking radioactive waste.
"While these reductions are unfortunate and will be damaging, the Department is doing everything within its power to protect our mission to the greatest extent possible," Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman wrote in a letter to Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, who is scheduled to tour the site on Wednesday.
The newly discovered leaks were revealed to Inslee by outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Feb. 22. The DoE said the six tanks are leaking at a rate of less than three gallons a day.
The leaks present no immediate risk to human health, officials said.
Weapons production at the 586-square-mile nuclear site resulted in more than 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste and groundwater contamination, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Inslee's tour and his decision to make the new leaks public knowledge, come at an uncertain time in the decades-long, multi-billion-dollar cleanup effort.
It remains to be seen how nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, who President Obama on Monday nominated as Chu's successor, will affect the project.
Moniz, who declined an interview request, has done work as a member of the administration's commission on nuclear waste and is now director of MIT's Energy Initiative, a research group that gets funding from industry heavyweights including BP and Chevron for academic work aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.
"Budget constraints cannot be an excuse to delay responding to these leaking tanks," Inslee spokesman David Postman said.
Cleanup is done by the Washington Department of Ecology, the EPA, and the Department of Energy - but the money behind it almost entirely federal.
A DoE office overseeing the construction of a special treatment plant to immobilize waste, could lose $92 million in funding, resulting in furloughs or layoffs for more than 2,800 workers.
Another office responsible for cocooning old reactors and treating contaminated groundwater could lose roughly $79 million in funding and cut hours or jobs for some 1,900 employees. (Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Patrick Graham)