The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, March 12, 2003

USEC can't afford union plan: chief
Meanwhile, a salaried worker was discovered sleeping by an inspector. USEC says it was not a result of fatigue.

By Joe Walker

USEC's chief financial officer says meeting the benefit demands of striking nuclear workers would cost the company $80 million over five years, or five times the amount of its projected 2003 ceiling earnings.

Henry Shelton told union bargainers Tuesday that their latest five-year contract proposal would cost $28 million more than USEC's $12 million package. Another $40 million in benefits would have to be offered to salaried people who make up the other half of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant work force that isn't striking, said company spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle.

About 635 members of Local 5-550 of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International are striking largely because the company wants to nearly double their share of health insurance premiums and refuses to increase their pensions.

Shelton discussed the pension issue and reiterated that USEC expects to earn $14 million to $16 million this year. "Clearly, USEC does not have the financial resources to support the union's previous proposal," Stuckle said.

Shelton spoke in Paducah during a federal mediation session aimed at ending the five-week strike. His visit marked the first time an executive from corporate headquarters has participated in contract talks.

Local 5-550 President Leon Owens said USEC did not respond Tuesday evening to a comprehensive offer from the union. Owens said he was disappointed that USEC did not offer a counterproposal. The two sides will meet again today.

Also Tuesday, Owens expressed renewed safety concerns after learning that a salaried plant worker doing a union job apparently dozed off Sunday night.

Representatives of USEC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the incident did not pose a safety hazard or stem from overwork. The operator, who had never had a similar problem, was warned, disciplined and allowed to resume work, the company said.

Owens said the operator was seen at 9:50 p.m. by resident NRC inspector Mary Lynne Thomas.

"I have talked with the NRC regarding this, and they have assured me this was not an issue of fatigue because the person had been given two days off prior to coming back in Sunday," Owens said. "I'm just concerned that this is basically what we've pointed out all along. Not only are salaried workers starting to get tired, but as you get tired there is a greater possibility of incidents."

Stuckle related the incident, which happened in one of the plant's huge buildings that enrich uranium:

Returning from two days off, the operator was in the second hour of his shift and had been in contact with a control room 10 minutes before being found apparently inattentive or asleep. He had logged his work shortly before that.

The worker was monitoring a piece of enrichment called a cell, which was being prepared for restarting. The cell contained no mildly radioactive uranium hexafluoride gas.

The man's front-line manager was with Thomas when she saw the worker. The manager consulted the plant shift superintendent and operations manager, who counseled and warned the worker before determining he was able to resume work.

"This was clearly inappropriate behavior, and the employee has been disciplined appropriately and consistent with company policy," she said.

"We're aware that it happened, but we're not really concerned because he wasn't taking care of any vital safety-related functions," said Viktoria Mitlyng, spokeswoman for the NRC regional office near Chicago.

She said Thomas and senior resident inspector Bruce Bartlett, who continue to share watching the plant from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily during the strike, have not seen any safety problems.

Owens said the incident was the first he has heard of during the strike, but a union worker was fired last week for sleeping on the job before the strike started Feb. 4. "No less than four weeks later, we have a manager in the same situation," he said.

The union employee was fired for sleeping on the top of a desk in a control room during "key operational" work, and the "violation was much more overt and purposeful than the latest incident," Stuckle said. "The union person had had two warnings for the same occurrence, and the third time he was found asleep, he was let go."

She said the salaried worker is one of about 45 operations personnel and 12 other employees working six 12-hour days followed by two days off, which falls "well within" NRC guidelines. A few of the dozen workers are at times working the same shift with one day off. Others have various schedules with fewer hours a week, she said.

USEC is training more people to help lighten work schedules and monitoring workers for signs of fatigue, she said. "The number of people working extended hours has gone down steadily since the beginning of the strike."