According to a spokesperson for Fluor BWXT, also known simply as FBP, the lead Department of Energy contractor handling the decontamination and demolition of the massive, closed Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, a recent call for the voluntary resignation of up to 75 workers at the plant site is not a sign of coming layoffs or other problems with the ongoing removal of the defunct uranium enrichment plant.
“The company has made significant strides,” said FBP’s Jack Williams.
He added work at the site is beginning to transition from deactivation and more into demolition, talking about a “shift in focus from deactivation to demolition and remediation.” He insisted the “separations” are strictly voluntary and said the company will not force anyone to leave employment if FBP is unable to find 75 volunteers.
Moreover, Williams said the number of employees at the plant will not fall but will remain constant as FBP brings in persons believed more capable of carrying out what he called the shifting work at the plant.
For his part, as you might expect, United Steelworkers Local 1–689 President John Knauff, who represents a majority of the workers at the Piketon plant, was not as optimistic about the situation.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “We consistently do not have enough people to maintain the facility while tearing it down now.”
Knauff said he was referring to such things as infrastructure, lighting, water, sewage and numerous other examples of maintenance functions he added need to be maintained as workers demolish the mammoth plant.
FBP previously announced intentions to move forward with demolition of a at least one very large-scale large building at the site, the so-called X-326 processing building, described by described by DOE and FBP detractors as one of the most contaminated buildings on the site.
According to Knauff, the collective bargaining agreement calls for removal by union workers of thousands of fluorescent light bulbs and long out-of-date mercury vapor bulbs from the building. Both types of bulbs are considered hazardous waste because they both contain various amounts of mercury, a heavy metal which according to a simple Internet search can cause severe damage to the brain, nervous system and other vital organs. Knauff compared mercury vapor lights to oversized floodlights.
The union leader contends if employees don’t remove those light bulbs they will simply be destroyed when the building they sit in is demolished by bulldozers, cranes, or whatever heavy equipment is used to knock down that building. He said all of the construction debris, including the contamination left by the destroyed light bulbs, will end up in the permanent on-site waste disposal facility currently under construction in a corner of the Piketon plant site and which has been the object of plenty of contention between critics of the demolition and DOE.
Knauff and the USW also have come out against construction of the disposal facility, commonly referred to by critics as a radioactive waste dump.
In summing up, Knauff said he also was put off by the timing of FBP’s announcement of the voluntary separations. Not only did the announcement come during the holiday season, Knauff said the company asked for an early morning meeting with union leadership. He said before that meeting even ended, local radio stations already were announcing the news of the employee changes at the plant site.
For his part, Williams said those who choose voluntary separation will continue to work until Jan. 31st. He contends FBP has been very conscientious with regard to the timing of the work separations. The plan was first announced to FBP employees Dec. 17. Knauff said those who accept separations will receive a separation payment equal to one half years pay for every year of service to the plant. Neither Knauff nor Williams could say how many people had accepted the voluntary separations as of Wednesday.
Wasting no time, faithful critic of DOE and FBP, former diffusion plant employee Vina Colley blasted FBP’s decision regarding its employees in an email sent to the Daily Times.
“They really don’t care about the workforce or the communities,” Colley wrote in part. “They need to tell us about the amount of plutonium and transuranic waste. It would slow down this suicide mission.”
Colley has consistently charged DOE is hiding the amount of plutonium and transuranic, or highly radioactive, contaminated materials present on the Piketon site, waste she further contends will end up in the permanent waste disposal facility. She recently announced her grassroots activist group intends to file a Freedom of Information Act request to uncover how much plutonium was shipped to the Piketon site during its time as an active uranium enrichment plant.
Enriching uranium to military grade levels was a key activity of the Cold War operation, but officials have admitted plutonium was shipped to the site as well. In speaking with the Daily Times, neither DOE nor FBP ever have denied the presence of plutonium and transuranic waste at the Piketon site.