Paducah, Portsmouth Nuclear Cleanup Sites to Emerge from COVD-19 Hibernation

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Department of Energy’s former uranium enrichment sites at Paducah, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio for over a month, except for activities critical to the sites’ cleanup missions. Local 550 at Paducah and Local 1-689 at Portsmouth also stopped conducting business because of the virus.

Local 550 acted a full week before the Department of Energy (DOE) had its coronavirus protocol in place, said Jim Key, the local’s vice president and the president of USW’s Atomic Energy Workers Council (AEWC).

The local's officers announced the temporary end of all union and staff meetings and training classes. They also temporarily closed the Workers Health Protection Program and the union hall, and told members they would be available via email, text and cell phone. All face-to-face meetings with the site’s three contractors ended and were replaced with communication via email, teleconferencing or video conferencing.

Key contacted DOE’s Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office (PPPO) in Lexington, Ky., and told the officials that the Hanford site had already issued a COVID-19 protocol. The next day, the PPPO issued its own protocol for the Portsmouth and Paducah nuclear cleanup sites.

The PPPO COVID-19 protocol said that all non-essential personnel would stay home and telework if they were able to do so. Contractor employees deemed “essential” were defined as working in mission-critical functions, such as facility management, steam and water power monitoring, regulatory adherence, safety, industrial hygiene and radiological control.

Key said that about 125 USW-represented workers at the Paducah site were considered essential employees and continued to work their respective shifts. Ten to 15 USW-represented workers per shift maintained the site’s power and utilities (gas boilers, air and sanitary systems). Local 550 represented workers in the fire department also continued to report to work and maintain the required staffing levels for a site-wide response.

Non-essential personnel who could not telework received their regular 40 hours a week of pay, health insurance and other benefits.

Key said the local is in constant communication with the contractors and PPPO regarding the length of the shutdown. Plans for a return to work are being discussed so that everyone can safely get back to their jobs.

Portsmouth, Ohio, site

The cleanup of the former Portsmouth gaseous diffusion plant has also been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Local 1-689 President John Knauff said that 172 USW members remained working onsite.

They have been handling the complex’s water and sanitary systems, the steam plant, some 24/7 operations that cannot be shut down, the fire department and the pickup of trash. Radiological control technicians have been taking readings, while buyers have teleworked at home. Operators for the DUF6 project have been maintaining the equipment so the conversion of depleted uranium into fluorine and uranium oxide can begin when the site is reopened.

Knauff also said the 25 USW workers at the Centrus Energy Corp.’s domestic enrichment cascade at the Portsmouth complex have continued to work onsite to keep the operation secure and maintain the facility. Normally, these employees assemble centrifuges to produce high assay enriched uranium.

The site’s start-up depends on Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s decisions on how to lift his stay-at-home order, Knauff said.  The local provided input on the site plan to return to work.

At least one person at the site tested positive for COVID-19.

“We know there are a lot more cases out there of people being infected with COVID-19,” Knauff said. “Going back to work is about the ability to test because you want to find those who are positive for the virus and isolate them.

“We draw employees from almost a 100-mile radius. There is a huge opportunity for the virus to spread,” he said.

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