The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

NRC cites Paducah plant's safety despite setbacks

A strike and USEC plans to close the plant didn't seem to affect safety.

By Joe Walker

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Despite a five-month strike and an announcement of a closure that could have affected worker morale, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has been safe during the past two years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says.

"The plant is operating safely, and we do see indications that things are improving," said Jay Henson, NRC chief fuel facility inspector in Atlanta.

The NRC and plant operator USEC Inc. held a public meeting Monday at the Paducah Information Age Park Resource Center to discuss the plant's safety performance from Jan. 1, 2003, to Sept. 25 of this year. During that time:

Nearly half of the approximately 1,300 employees were on strike from Feb. 2 to June 25, 2003. Salaried personnel ran the factory until the plant nuclear workers' union reached a new contract that will last until July 31, 2011.

USEC announced Jan. 12 that it will close the outdated Paducah plant starting in 2010 and replace it with a gas centrifuge factory in Piketon, Ohio.

Henson said the NRC has not identified any trends suggesting a laxity in safety as a result of the strike or closure announcement. After the strike, USEC put union workers through extensive training to ensure they were ready to return to work, he said.

"Sometimes in those types of situations you may have a work force that wants to increase the number of concerns expressed to the NRC," he said. "We haven't seen that."

Russ Starkey, plant general manager, said the number of employee safety allegations to the NRC dropped from 49 in 2000 to nine during the first 11 months of this year. The number of discrimination complaints declined from 12 to only one during the comparative periods, he said.

Starkey credited union and salaried workers with improving plant safety during the stressful two-year period.

"Our people are doing it," he said. "We're doing extremely well, not only in the relationship between workers and management, but in the way the plant is performing."

Because of the work, the 52-year-old plant has set records for efficiency and equipment operating to enrich uranium for use in nuclear fuel, he said.

In its review, the NRC said the plant needs more improvement in the procedures regarding operations and operator attentiveness; nuclear criticality safety analysis and documentation; and identifying and correcting problems. During the meeting, Starkey outlined steps to improve those areas.

In November 2003, a plant operator was suspended with pay for falling asleep in a building where a hazardous chemical is withdrawn from production. Eight months earlier, during the strike, an operator was warned, disciplined and allowed to resume work after nodding off in one of the enrichment buildings.

The most recent episode of inattentiveness took place last month, when an operator in a truck, working near some of the plant's cooling towers, didn't immediately respond when spoken to by another worker. The operator — who apparently was not asleep and had recently been in contact with others in the plant — was disciplined, plant Public Affairs Manager Georgann Lookofsky said.

Starkey said there is no common reason for inattentiveness and the plant has taken several steps to cut down on it, including "fitness for duty" training, procedures revision and a senior management oversight program.

Since January 2003, workers have decreased procedure-related human errors and, depending on the type of procedure, decreased or maintained a low number of procedural violations, he said.