One NRC leader says the agency will closely watch operations, maintenance and the amount of overtime logged.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
As USEC Inc. prepares to cut 275 more jobs at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will watch more closely to see that staffing is adequate and people aren't jeopardizing safety by working too much overtime.
USEC, mired in severe financial trouble, will start the cuts July 14 during a time when it typically reduces summer production because of rising power costs. NRC Branch Chief Pat Hiland said his agency will scrutinize the effect of the layoffs starting in the fall, when the plant is expected to increase production.
Speaking at a sparsely attended public meeting Tuesday night at Paducah Community College, Hiland said the NRC will monitor many areas more closely, notably operations, maintenance and the amount of overtime worked.
"Those are the specific areas that we should see a trend if they are understaffed," Hiland said. "Our regulations actually require staffing for each shift of about 50 people."
That includes operations, maintenance, health physics and shift superintendent's personnel in key buildings, said Ken O'Brien, NRC senior resident inspector at the plant. Hiland said others are needed to support the minimum, but the agency does not have a set number.
To determine if the downsized plant is safe, there will be concentrated inspections and safety reviews and an emphasis on areas of concern, Hiland said.
John Driskill, president of the plant guards' union, has expressed concern about USEC's cutting four security officer positions. USEC reportedly backed down on a plan to cut a similar number of emergency response positions.
Hiland said the commission is watching trends in those departments as well as other areas of the plant.
"I wouldn't take just the security and emergency response and single those out as any more important than any other group," he said. "Each group has a role to play, and all those groups have to be integrated correctly. If you mismanage a downsizing and you have one group that's not able to do its function, that's certainly a concern to us."
Operations, maintenance and engineering are of particular concern to the NRC because of the number of projected cuts provided by USEC in those areas, Hiland said.
On May 17, a week before the voluntary severance window closed, USEC sent an employee memo showing that engineering and production support jobs were targeted for the most cuts — 46 and 40, respectively — among salaried workers. The numbers were subject to change, the memo said.
Combined with about 200 job cuts in 1998 and 1999, the 275 reductions this year will reduce plant employment to about 1,300 spread over three shifts. That marks a decline of more than 25 percent in three years.
"Anytime you start to talk about a 10 or 15 percent or even higher percentage of the work force, that's significant," Hiland said.
Ninety-one salaried and 57 union workers applied for voluntary severance benefits including a cash payout of as much as $17,500.