USW Workers Return to Nuclear Clean-Up Site After COVID-19 Hiatus

The Department of Energy (DOE) is returning USW workers to the Portsmouth, Ohio, nuclear waste clean-up site as part of its Phase 2 COVID-19 remobilization.

While the DOE labeled many USW-represented workers as being “essential” to maintaining the clean-up sites in a safe and environmentally secure manner during the COVID-19 shutdown, there were also a number who were furloughed and sent home along with those who could telework.

Phase 1 involved returning DOE and contractor employees with high-priority and low-risk jobs. Phase 2 brings back workers whose jobs are best done on-site—provided there is enough personal protective equipment for those who need it.

In Phase 3, staffing will return to near-normal levels with all the anti-virus precautions continuing—masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc.—and special accommodations can be made for vulnerable employees, according to the DOE.

The DOE said that Idaho National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico are already in Phase 2.  The Hanford Site in Washington state is still in Phase 1.

The DOE announced July 7 that some workers at the Paducah, Ky., site would return to work as well, but on Mon., July 20, the agency cancelled the return because of the surge in COVID cases in the region.

Getting Back to Work

Local 1-689 President John Knauff estimated about 750 USW-represented workers employed by the Portsmouth site’s clean-up contractor, Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth (FBP), will return the week of July 20. This group includes maintenance workers who maintain the electrical system and utilities for the site.

Road, ground and janitorial personnel who work for contractor Portsmouth Mission Alliance returned to work in Phase 1, he said. The planners and purchasing employees are also back at work.

Centrus Energy Corp.’s demonstration project for its domestic enrichment cascade at the Portsmouth site never went to reduced operations because of the pandemic, Knauff said. The company hired a few more people in addition to the 25 USW-represented workers at the site. They are getting parts to produce a centrifuge train, and will be assembling centrifuges and producing high assay-enriched uranium.

Slow Return

“I think it will be a slow process in getting people back for deactivation and decommissioning (D&D) cleanup work,” Knauff said.

Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office (PPPO) Manager Robert Edwards also said it would be a slow ramp up at the Portsmouth and Paducah sites as the agency monitors COVID-19 cases in the surrounding areas.

Knauff said there is much preparation happening at the Portsmouth site before D&D work starts. The contractors are posting social distancing signs, installing plexiglass between work stations, and are stocking up on hand sanitizer and masks.

“We don’t want to be the breeding ground for this virus in southern Ohio,” he said.

The key is transitioning from the personal protective equipment (PPE) used to do the D&D work, he said, to the mask and social distancing once cleanup workers come out of the D&D area.

“It’s a team effort so you have to go in together and leave together. It’s a challenge,” he said, especially with the PPE being hot to wear and people wanting to remove it.

“We’ve tried to get better ventilation in these buildings. Stagnant air is not comfortable to work in, especially in the summer. The roofs on the buildings are like an asphalt parking lot; heat radiates down into the work areas,” Knauff said.

Plus, he said, there are the pressures to get work done quickly by managers pushing production over safety.

“I think the DOE hopes to do D&D work now, but I think their best hope is in Sept./Oct. They know this can be contingent on how the virus progresses outside the plant. As cases increase in counties around the site, that makes the dangers worse,” Knauff said.

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