As the government shutdown entered its third week Monday, national research labs in the Bay Area were preparing for immediate closure -- putting thousands of employees on unpaid furloughs -- or hoping existing funds will last until the crisis is resolved.

By Wednesday afternoon, 5,500 Lawrence Livermore Laboratory employees will be sent home. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Stanford-operated SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory did not reveal closure deadlines, although the National Nuclear Security Administration has ordered Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, as well as Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, to halt most of their operations by Monday if the shutdown continues.

"It's really terrible," said Steven Kahn, a Stanford University physics professor and director of SLAC's federally funded Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project. "Government projects are big complex things, and you can't say 'Oh you can just shut it down for a couple of weeks.'"

Kahn and his team of 100 full-time employees are building a telescope in Chile that is powerful enough to view 3 billion galaxies. If the shutdown continues on Thursday, however, Kahn's project will miss a key federal review, which could delay the project for up to a year. And if the impasse continues to the end of the month, Kahn said, the project will have to consider pay cuts or layoffs.


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Layoffs and the loss of pay could roil the Bay Area economy. Sandia's payroll for 2012 was $187.8 million. And Lawrence Livermore, with an annual payroll of some $700 million, is Alameda County's second-largest employer.

Lawrence Livermore employees will receive pay -- shifted 2014 holidays -- through the end of the week. Their furloughs will begin Monday, though employees will have the option to use vacation days, said spokeswoman Lynda Seaver.

At a town hall meeting in Livermore on Sunday, Rep Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, told concerned Livermore and Sandia labs employees he would try hard to avoid their having to take furloughs.

"Our national lab and federal government workers should not suffer because the Tea Party decided to hold the economy hostage and force furloughs," Swalwell said in a prepared statement Monday. "Not only will the labs' cutting-edge scientific research be put on hold during a furlough period, our national labs could face an irreparable brain drain as our bright young scientists opt for the private sector."

Kahn said he was hopeful something will change this week. But, he said, "It's really frightening that things have gone on this long already."

Staff writer Paul Rogers contributed to this report. Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.