The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Tours answer union claims of safety

By Joe Walker

Those working long hours during a strike at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant say the worst part isn't fatigue or stress, but being away from their families.

Salaried personnel, some putting in 72-hour weeks, say the work is safe and efficient. With some new workers and retraining existing workers, rigorous schedules are being relaxed to give them more free time.

"I'll be glad to spend more time at home and try to get the lawn mowed," said Ken Lewis, a father of three and acting front-line manager/operator in one of the plant's 26-acre production buildings. "My wife has taken over some of my responsibilities at home. She's been great help in helping me cope with this."

Plant operator USEC Inc. says it wants to end the 10-week strike, but is running 2. months ahead of its production schedule partly because of work the union did before walking off the job Feb. 4. The company, which enriches uranium for nuclear fuel, invited the media into the plant Tuesday to speak with people doing union work. Community leaders took a similar tour Monday.

General Manager Russ Starkey said the visits were a chance to respond to union claims that overworked, inexperienced management personnel are jeopardizing plant and public safety. Although there have been a few "missteps" during the strike, work is improving because salaried employees many who returned to former union jobs after many years are "not as rusty" as they were just a few weeks ago, he said.

Starkey said there are only a few people still putting in 72-hour weeks and that schedule is being drastically reduced. In the long run, the union needs to come back and spread the load, he said. The striking 635 union workers represent about half the plant work force.

"There are a whole lot of good people out there on strike," Starkey added. "Just because they're on strike doesn't make them bad people. It doesn't mean they aren't good workers."

Last week, the union repeated there have been four safety-related incidents at the Paducah plant since the strike began. One involved a management employee found sleeping and another being absent from a control room briefly while using the bathroom.

Bruce Bartlett, senior resident inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the plant has run safely during the strike, although he is concerned about long work hours. Bartlett said he and another inspector who have been working long hours will get a break next week as two other inspectors temporarily relieve them. About six other NRC inspectors were in the plant several weeks ago for a routine check, he said.

Lewis said the incidents the union complained about were not unlike others that happened before the strike, yet didn't get publicized.

"It's just been pure coincidence in my opinion," he said. "We all make mistakes and I think these were mistakes and not strike-related."

USEC has brought in four production operators from its closed enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio, and retrained several former operators who had gone on to other jobs at the Paducah plant, Lewis said.

He said people in the building have just started working six 12-hour days with three days off, rather than five 12-hour days and one day off when the strike started.

"The amount of work is being relaxed and that's good because it was getting monotonous and tiring," he said. "But we were coping. Every body was doing what they needed to do."

The union has repeatedly warned that replacement personnel aren't properly trained or experienced to work with uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is hazardous and mildly radioactive.

"We fully expect that a combination of fatigue and lack of institutional knowledge of the plant's operations, coupled with scores of unknown persons now doing our jobs, could eventually take its toll and pose a direct threat to public safety," union president Leon Owens said last week.

But Jeff Buckholter, manager of a building where UF6 is heated for shipping in cylinders, said replacement workers there have at least a month's classroom and on-job training. Having more people affords the staff an extra day off, he said.

"When they (union workers) were here, they worked a lot more hours than that," Buckholter said. "They took all kinds of overtime."

Bill Bondurant, a front-line manager now working as a shipping-building operator, said his training was longer than a month to allow him to work in more than one area of the plant.

Ray Boren said he has enjoyed returning to cylinder-handling work which he did when he started at the plant nearly 26 years ago after being a maintenance-procedure writer. He said he "doesn't feel stressed out in any way" by his schedule of 12-hour days with two days off.

"I enjoy it, to tell you the truth," he said. "It's a break from writing procedures after sitting behind a desk for years."

Shift superintendent Frank Cage and operations manager Larry Jackson said a considerable amount of painting, cleaning and general upkeep has been done plantwide. They said the work was the result of jurisdictional issues that were eliminated because of the strike.