The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, March 08, 2003

Whitfield queries dangers to safety in strike at USEC
He wrote to the head of the NRC regarding the situation of salaried personnel working 12 hours a day, six days a week.

By Joe Walker jwalker@paducahsun.com--270.575.8650

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield has asked the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for assurance that the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is running safely during a strike by half its work force.

Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, wrote Chairman Richard Meserve on Thursday, saying salaried personnel have been working 12 hours a day, six days a week since 635 union members began picketing Feb. 4. The letter said that although working 72 hours followed by one day off "is not a direct violation of NRC rules, I would question how long that schedule can be maintained without sacrificing plant safety."

Whitfield asked if he could seek "enhanced oversight" if it was not already provided. Both he and Meserve were abroad Friday, but a commission spokesman said the plant's two resident inspectors are monitoring the plant from about 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and weekends.

"We are covering the Paducah plant seven days a week, roughly 16 hours a day, and we plan to continue that," said Jan Strasma of the NRC Region 3 office in Chicago. "We have seen no significant risks or safety issues, and we have not seen any issues that would lead us to believe the staff on hand now cannot safely operate the plant."

Meserve testified Wednesday in a congressional hearing on the national energy outlook. Whitfield was involved in the hearing but didn't have time to ask Meserve about Paducah plant safety, said Jeff Miles, Whitfield's press secretary.

Whitfield was unable to reach Meserve by phone Thursday before the congressman left by plane for a three-day trip to Turkey. Before Meserve flew to Vienna, where he will be for a week, he called back Friday, Miles said.

Striking members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International have repeatedly raised safety concerns, saying inexperienced people are running the plant and two inspectors can't keep pace. They complained most recently during a meeting Thursday with aides of U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois.

There have been no nuclear safety violations or lost-workday injuries during the strike, USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said Friday. She said there was more enrichment equipment running than before the strike and shipments of enriched uranium were still on schedule.

Some are working 72-hour weeks, but the number is lessening as more people are trained to "provide a more normal work schedule if the work stoppage continues," Stuckle said. "In addition, we are closely monitoring our employees to ensure that fatigue does not become a concern."

Although the number fluctuates, there are about 25 new salaried people nine from Paducah's closed sister plant in Ohio, six former Paducah plant workers who had been developing gas centrifuge technology, five Paducah plant retirees and five contractors, Stuckle said.

She said the plant is meeting training, qualification and administrative requirements by NRC for anyone operating plant equipment.

Earlier this week, Local 5-550 President Leon Owens said that before striking, the union had ensured that shipments would be met through early March. He expressed concern that salaried workers' long hours might lead to an accident jeopardizing employee or public safety. The plant routinely deals with low-level radiation and many hazardous chemicals.

During the Thursday meeting, strikers accused plant manager Russ Starkey of pressuring the plant credit union to force them to pay on their loans. They said they understood Starkey had approached at least one credit union board member but would not say exactly how they knew that.

"It is absolutely untrue," Stuckle said Friday. "This issue dates back to a fabrication told on a Yahoo message board. Once we became aware it had appeared, we verified with the credit union manager and several board members that it was in fact an utter fabrication."

USEC is "disappointed that someone would lie in an attempt to deliberately create animosity," she said.

Mark Atwood, chief executive officer of the C-Plant Federal Credit Union, would not comment on the allegation but said workers will receive plenty of leeway during the strike. They are losing an average of $3,500 a month in wages and now face paying nearly $1,500 a month for group health insurance no longer funded by the company.

"Our members own the credit union," he said. "It's our responsibility to help them in good times and bad. We'll continue to do that no matter how long this thing lasts."

Atwood said granting loan extensions for strikers will not hurt the 11,500-member credit union because its assets are now shared roughly evenly by plant workers and retirees and by others in the community.

"In 1998, we chose to go outside the core group and now have well over 150 different select employee groups," he said. "Our asset base is well diversified and not solely dependent on one particular group."