Honeywell Bosses Coached Scabs Through Safety Test at Uranium Plant

11/22/2010 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mike Elk Labor reporter at POLITICO; Member of the Washington Baltimore Newspaper Guild

Temporary workers taking the place of locked-out union employees at a uranium enrichment plant in Illinois appear to be woefully unprepared to run the sensitive facility and were coached through recent safety checks, according to a reading of the inspection report. The scab workers, who the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly warned have substandard qualifications to run such a plant, took safety tests with managers present who identified parts. And the workers were able to watch other workers take the test before taking it themselves and often provided with answers ahead of time, according to a report filed by NRC Inspector Joselito O. Calle.

According to NRC Inspector Calle's publicly available report:

"the inspectors noted that evaluator coached the candidate several times during task performance and therefor did not allow the candidate to completely demonstrates his ability to demonstrate his ability to independently perform the task For example: 1.) the evaluator provided coaching when he showed the candidate the locations of several components when the candidate was unable to locate them. 2.) the evaluator coached the candidate when the evaluator showed the candidate where the candidate was in the procedure and, 3) the evaluation coached the candidate when the evaluator helped the candidate follow the procedure." NRC Inspector Calle cites these violations as well providing scab workes with copies of test material and allowing them to observe the tests as violations of NRC License Condition No. 18 (VIO 40-3392/2010-002-01).

The less than impressive test results come after an operator error nearly led to massive fatalities in the surrounding town of Metropolis, when a safety valve damaged by failure to follow proper safety procedure burst sending out particles of deadly toxic UF6 gas. According to former Honeywell environmental safety officer Mitch Lagerstorm, the gas leak, had it not been stopped in time, could have killed the nearby town.

For the first time in more than 60 years, Honeywell's uranium enrichment facility in Metropolis, Illinois is locking out its workers and running the plant with scab employees. The plant's owners have never been allowed to bring in temporary replacement workers in the past, because regulators feared such workers would not have the site-specific knowledge to operate this facility. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials told union members and community members in town halls leading up to the current lock-out that they thought it would be very difficult for safety reasons to open the plant without the normal team of fully-trained union workers.

In fact, the NRC did not allow the plant to recommence production of the deadly toxic UF6 gas for over two months from the time Honeywell's ongoing lock-out of the plant workers began. Finally, after much pressure from Honeywell, the NRC approved the re-opening of the plant. Since then, there has been a large explosion, leaks of non-toxic gas, and urine tests indicating extraordinarily high level of uranium flowing through the replacement workers, as HuffPost previously documented here.

Questions linger as to why the NRC took the unprecedented step of allowing the plant to operate on scab labor. Honeywell CEO David Cote's has an extremely close relationship with President Obama; Honeywell is the number one corporate political contributor to the Democratic Party. It has increased its political contributions by 400% since Obama took office in 2008. President Obama has routinely described Honeywell CEO David Cote as one of his closest advisers in the business community. Cote recently accompanied Obama on a trip to India and was the President's pick to serve on the Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission.

The NRC has traditionally been an industry-friendly regulatory agency. Jim Riccio of Greenpeace says that "the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [is] to the nuclear industry what the Mine & Mineral Services was to BP. "

A new NRC inspection report sheds light on why Honeywell was able to keep their plant open. The report published online in the NRC's Agencywide Documents Access and Management System entitled "NRC Inspection Report No. 40-3392/2010-002 and Notice of Violations by NRC Inspector Joselito O. Calle shows that Honeywell was able to re-open the plant by cheating on the safety tests of scab replacement workers. Honeywell's failure to follow proper safety procedures led to the release of deadly toxic UF6 gas, which could have killed dozens had it not been quickly contained.

According to the NRC's recently issued report on safety violations at the Metropolis facility, Honeywell safety evaluators coached scabs in order to pass the on-the-job evaluations necessary to work in the uranium facility. When workers were unable to identify key parts of the equipment processing the uranium during safety tests, evaluators pointed out and named the equipment. Additionally, the scab replacement workers were often given access to material with the answers to the safety tests during safety exams themselves. According to the NRC, these violations are what the NRC classifies as examples of a Severity Level IV Problem.

From the report's findings it is clear that poor training lead to a small release of deadly toxic UF6 gas on September 6, 2010 that had it not been stopped quickly could have killed the whole town. NRC Inspector Joselito O. Calle confirmed to this reporter that at least one worker did not follow standard safety procedures in the hours leading up to the leak. Calle would not comment further on whether the worker in question was a scab replacement worker, since the matter is still under ongoing investigation by NRC.

According to Calle's report, the failure to follow established safety and operating procedures is what led to the release of the UF6 gas. The poor training and failure to follow proper procedure led workers to inadvertently damage the isolation valve, which could have caused a massive fatal radioactive accident.

According to Mitch Lagerstorm, a former Honeywell environmental safety officer at the Metropolis plant,

Considering that the valve was damaged due to operator error (not following the procedure) it could have completely failed. If that happened up to 10,000 pounds of UF6 in the cylinder could have been released. Running the EPA's RMP*Comp software, if 10,000 pounds of UF6 were released, the plume would travel with the wind killing everyone in that direction up to 5.8 miles." When inhaled, smoke containing high levels of UF6 is deadly."[errant quote mark?]

Also, according to the NRC report, "examination of a number of similar valves stocked in a supply of spare valves that were thought to be ready for service indicated similar types of damage although none appeared to be as severe." It is unclear why such a large number of spare safety valves were damaged. The NRC did not ask questions of Honeywell during its inspection pertaining to why so many spare valves were damaged. Furthermore, Honeywell spokesman Peter Dapel refused to comment on the matter.

One could speculate that so many spare valves are damaged because Honeywell bought cheap valves that were already damaged and didn't inspect the valves upon receipt. Or that Honeywell was storing safety valves that were damaged in operation. According to Honeywell former environmental safety officer Mitch Lagerstorm, "Either would display a lack of sufficient training and adherence to plant procedures." It remains unclear, however, why Honeywell has so many damaged spare safety valves.

Regardless, local community members seem worried about the poorly trained scab replacement workers operating the uranium facility in Metropolis. "I want to believe that the NRC, as a credible government regulator, is doing its job regulating the plant," said Metropolis Mayor Billy McDaniel. "However, I would feel more comfortable sleeping at night if I knew the trained union workers were operating that plant instead of the replacement workers. I hope the company allows the union workers to return soon, so we can all rest easy."

The question remains why is it worth it for Honeywell to risk the safety of the nearby community in order to keep the trained union workers locked out and bust the workers' union? Financially, Honeywell has suffered heavily for locking the workers out.

With the lockout in its fifth month, Honeywell has spent more money keeping workers locked out at the Metropolis facility than it would be spending if it were providing the workers what they want. According to union officials, Honeywell has already spent or lost at least $48.8 million to keep the workers locked out over a four month period. By contrast, agreeing to workers' demands that Honeywell maintain their current health and retirement benefits would cost the company only $20 million over the life of a three-year contract.

Honeywell, though, is willing to bear any financial costs, or put the community at risk, because it aims to bust the thousands of unionized workers in its employ. Honeywell has told other unions preparing for collective-bargaining negotiations that they better accept what Honeywell wants or suffer the fate of Honeywell's Metropolis workers according to USW spokesman John Paul Smith. Honeywell is a corporation willing to do whatever it takes to prevent its workers from exercising their legal rights to organize and bargain collectively for decent wages and benefits.

The bigger question is why then did President Obama travel around India with Honeywell CEO David Cote at his side? With friends like these, it is no wonder that for the first time in over a generation, a majority of union members did not vote for the Democratic Party in the mid-term election.