The workers' president presents a trophy for their stand-alone achievement.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
That was the message of William "Nick" Timbers, president and chief executive officer of USEC Inc., who visited the plant Monday to celebrate workers' achieving stand-alone status. It took them 18 months to upgrade the plant to produce reactor-grade uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, a project the company first thought would take three years, he said.
As a result, the plant now is poised to become the nation's only UF6 enricher once USEC closes its sister facility in Piketon, Ohio, next month.
"To do a project that you guys did in 18 months ... was really quite amazing," Timbers told employees gathered Monday in the plant theater. "If there's an example in American industry of teamwork, this is the project."
Timbers presented what he called a "Stanley Cup" trophy to General Manager Howard Pulley on behalf of the employees. After chatting with workers in various areas of the plant, he went to Madison Hall downtown for a community reception in honor of the accomplishment.
"As I've said in many different quarters, this company has put its flag in Paducah," Timbers said. "Paducah is our town. This is our plant."
Timbers said the upgrade is among several developments that give cause for optimism. By next year, USEC expects to have a new contract lowering the price it pays for Russian uranium, which will make the company more competitive, he said. And a recent preliminary Commerce Department ruling in a USEC trade case suggests that two foreign competitors have been unfairly subsidized by their governments and must pay duties on uranium imported into the American market, which accounts for 60 percent of USEC revenue.
"All these things have helped the company," Timbers said. "It's been also a robust market in terms of nuclear power. How many of us would have guessed five to seven years ago that we would be talking about the construction of new nuclear power plants? And with new nuclear power plants goes enriched uranium."
Timbers said almost every existing nuclear power plant is extending its license, and some are planning work until 2038, which should give the Paducah plant some security. Add to that the Bush administration's policy of increasing energy capacity, including nuclear power, and that is an environment increasingly more conducive for the workers here, he said.
The new emphasis on nuclear power apparently is a reason why USEC stock has rebounded after a two-year plummet from $14.25 a share, when the company was privatized, to $3.50 a share. In recent months, the stock has steadily risen and closed Monday at more than $9.50.
"It appears that the value of the stock reflects that positive environment," Timbers said in an interview.
Agreeing with President Bush that the nation has a critical shortage of energy capacity, he said no nuclear power plant has been built in the nation in three decades since the Three Mile Island accident. Timbers said that in speeches during the past several years, "I felt like the little boy crying wolf" in stressing the need for more nuclear power.
The changes made by the Paducah workers, combined with difficult cost-cutting measures taken by USEC during the last few years, means there are no foreseeable changes in the work force here, Timbers said.
Upgrading the plant took thousands of work hours to change systems, procedures and training to produce reactor-grade UF6. That allows the plant to ship directly to nuclear power plants, rather than having to send the UF6 to the Ohio plant for more enrichment.
Because reactor-grade material is more radioactive, the plant had to convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the work would be safe. That approval came in March, after which the plant ran for about six weeks at higher assay with no problems, said Production Manager Mike Buckner.
"I do think the majority of the work force had some eloquent contribution to this," he said. "It really touched almost everyone. It's been obvious from the activity level of the plant that it had total employee support."
The plant has begun its annual rampdown to idle status during summer months when electricity costs are highest. A new Tennessee Valley Authority contract allows the plant to run at 125 megawatts higher than in past summers, which means less equipment shutdown, Buckner said. The facility will resume normal production in late August at better power prices under the new contract.