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Nuclear Regulators Prohibit Honeywell to Resume Production at Facility With Locked-Out Workers

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When I originally wrote about Honeywell CEO David Cote threatening the safety of a small town by bringing in under-trained "scabs" (replacement workers ) to run a uranium enrichment facility in Metropolis, IL, some contacted me saying they doubted the safety concerns I cited were as serious. The plant is currently being operated on a skeleton crew of managers and hired scabs who are indeed under-trained.

The Metropolis facility is the only conversion facility in the country that can distill uranium. While the scab workers Honeywell brought in from Louisiana have worked in nuclear facilities, they haven't worked on the process that converts uranium from the somewhat toxic UF4 solid state to the extraordinarily more lethal liquid UF6. For the process of converting uranium to UF6, Honeywell is hoping to use its managers who used to work on these processes years ago according to local workers. In addition to not having worked these jobs in years and, as a result, being generally unfamiliar with them, the managers are liable to be especially unprepared to deal with the conversion plant's control system, which has been altered dramatically in the last few years claims union official John Paul Smith.

Currently, the workers running the plant are unfamiliar with the system they are using and unfamiliar with the processes. This is a uranium enrichment facility from which even the slightest leak of UF6 could wipe out the entire town.

For this reason, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not allowed the plant to resume production of UF6 according to local community and union sources. Local community and union officials claim that Honeywell is currently using all the political connections it can to force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to re-open it.

Honeywell originally said they would start up production of the deadly UF6 on Wednesday, however, Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors would not allow it. The Nuclear Regulatory Inspectors informed local community and union officials that they would not allow it because on Aug. 25 a round of urine tests on workers showed an unusually high amount of uranium in workers' urine. The workers were not permitted to return to working with the uranium. Neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Honeywell could be reached for comment to confirm the claims of local community members and union officials.

Since uranium sometimes builds up in the blood stream of workers working around it for years, the high levels of uranium in the workers' urine was not, in itself, unusual. None of the workers who were tested, however, had ever been tested for high levels of uranium, which meant they had been contaminated with the uranium since the last round of testing earlier this summer. More shockingly, one of the inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had unusually high levels of uranium in his urine tests.

According to union spokesman John Paul Smith, degrading safety under the leadership of Cote has been a top concern of workers over the last few years. Under the management of Cote, the TOP safety programs of union-management safety committee have been disbanded. Under the TOP system, each incident was investigated jointly by a full-time union representative and a full-time company representative, who each filed an independent report on the matter. Because the union's workers would suffer the most from toxic uranium exposure, it had the biggest incentive to make sure the plant was safe, and thus, often wrote tougher reports than the company. For this reason TOP was disbanded.

In place of TOP, Honeywell implemented its own program of behavioral safety, without the workers' input. If there was a problem or a leak, a worker was deemed responsible and disciplined for that problem even if it occurred because of aging equipment. If a worker reported a problem in their section, he was often cited for misconduct and liable to be fired. One worker who reported a routine problem was fired after 30 years of experience and no prior record of safety violations according to sources familiar with the firing. The threat of firing workers for reporting safety problems actually creates a disincentive for workers to report problems.

Workers claim that Cote is far more interested in keeping his record profits high than actually protecting workers and the surrounding community. During contract negotiations, Cote has proven this by risking nuclear fallout in order to demand that uranium workers agree to cut their retiree health care and pension plans.

That is why today, the 350,000 members of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees called on President Obama to fire Cote from the so-called Deficit Commission. They said:

Mr. Cote's cruel and calculated behavior towards workers at its hexafluoride plant in Metropolis, Ill. clearly illustrates that he's unqualified and inappropriate to help decide issues such as whether to reduce the federal deficit by cutting programs like social security or by upgrading the faulty military contracting process, from which Honeywell benefits.

Mr. Cote should be evicted from the so-called Deficit Commission immediately before he can use that position to harm all Americans the way he is injuring Honeywell workers in Illinois.

Since Cote is one of President Obama's personal appointments to the Deficit Commission, it falls upon the president to decide whether or not a man such as Cote should continue to serve on his commission.

UPDATE: Spokesman Roger Hannah of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) told Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post on Friday - "We have done a number of inspections over the last several weeks looking at remaining parts of the process...At this point we haven't identified any issues that would preclude them starting up that process...If they notify us that they're starting up, we are prepared to send inspectors to monitor their process for the first 72 hours around the clock.".

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Metropolis facility was the only conversion facility in the world that can distill uranium. Metropolis is the only one of its kind in the United States. Similar facilities exist overseas.