Locked-Out Steelworkers Hit Honeywell for Cheating on Test to Run Uranium Plant

Steelworkers locked out at the nation’s only uranium conversion facility issued a report condemning their employer for coaching scabs during the tests required to run the plant.

The union cited violations issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which chastised Honeywell in November for assisting scabs to pass the NRC’s exams. The test results allowed the company to restart production after it locked out 228 union workers last June.

The citation says some scabs had access to evaluation rooms while other workers took the test, that some could listen in during questions asked in the oral portion, and others had managers help them when they “became confused” and couldn’t finish a procedure correctly. The plant converts milled uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is processed elsewhere into nuclear fuel.

Joe Calle, acting chief for the NRC branch that inspects the Honeywell facility, said the company disqualified the individuals whose tests were tainted by improper assistance. The replacement workers were quickly retrained, retested, and found to be qualified, he said.

“As a member of the community I’m so disappointed in the NRC,” said Stephen Lech, a locked-out Steelworker. “The story changes so much between their local inspectors and their spokesmen. They’re a babysitter for the company.”

The plant has suffered two incidents since the lockout, a September explosion that shook the ground beyond the plant gates, and a December release of highly toxic hydrofluoric acid, which triggered the plant’s mitigation towers. They sprayed water for more than an hour to prevent gas from escaping the plant’s fence line.

Neither incident resulted in any injuries. Calle said preliminary investigations into the December release showed no gas escaped and emergency response systems worked as designed. A full report isn’t expected until April.

One worker died after breathing in the gas at a previous incident at a now-closed Oklahoma plant.

PREPARING FOR DISASTER

Calling Honeywell “irresponsible” for endangering the community, the state representative for the district called on nuclear regulators to eject the scabs last week and shut the plant until experienced union workers were back on the job. “It’s not a question of if, but when a disaster will occur,” said Representative Brandon Phelps.

Steelworkers Local 7-669 is taking every precaution it can from outside the plant, offering training to local fire departments in proper techniques to battle a blaze inside.

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Lech said the company hadn’t prepared fire fighters to handle a chemical fire, noting that some chemicals at the plant produce poisonous gases when exposed to water. The training proved so popular the Steelworkers had to triple their classes.

Mike Riley, a Steelworkers health and safety rep, will accompany officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration into the plant in coming weeks. Steelworkers claim that sources inside the plant have witnessed several injuries that have not been reported.

The local is also opening up to the community, holding a meeting for residents tonight to answer their questions about the company and the lockout.

John Smith, a seven-year production operator and union steward, said the union wanted to reinforce why the lockout occurred.

The local had offered to extend the contract for three years, with a wage and benefit freeze, he said. Honeywell in return demanded the elimination of retiree health care and big increases in current workers’ health costs. The company shut the plant gates when members refused to jeopardize health coverage in an inherently dangerous workplace.

Worries are also developing among workers and residents over Honeywell’s plans to seal four storage ponds on the site. The company proposes to cap the ponds, mixing cement into toxic byproducts from uranium conversion. An Environmental Protection Agency report, issued in 2000, questions whether a concrete-like mixture wouldn’t degrade over decades, raising fears that toxins would leach into drinking water.

“Honeywell acts like the community is a burden, not an asset,” Smith said. “They aren’t taking seriously their responsibility to all of us.”


Supporters can watch the community meeting at the local's website tonight, and are encouraged to join the local's Adopt-A-Family program.

Mischa Gaus was the editor of Labor Notes from 2008 to 2012.mischagaus@gmail.com