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Nuclear Submarine Fuel Plant Has Uncertain Future As Navy Supply Wanes

March 22, 1986

ERWIN, Tenn. (AP) _ A bitter 10-month strike has cut production sharply at a uranium plant, leaving the Navy scrambling for fuel for its nuclear-powered submarines.

″I must say, it worries me,″ Adm. Kinnaird McKee, head of the Navy’s nuclear reactors department, said in a letter to a Tennessee congressman.

Negotiators have failed to reach an agreement between 350 union workers and Nuclear Fuel Services - the sole supplier of fuel for the Navy’s atomic fleet. On Thursday, management rejected a union offer to return to work for a four- month cooling off period, and a federal mediator recessed the talks.

The workers walked out when their contract expired May 15 over a company proposal to require college coursework for some jobs, which union officials say would allow the company to lay off veteran employees. The company said the change would apply only to newly hired workers and those transferring to other jobs in the plant.

Workers also complain they have been exposed to excessive radiation while processing uranium in fuel rods for nuclear reactors, an argument company spokesman Jim Clark calls a ″red herring.″

Some workers have been put on ″restriction″ and transferred away from radioactive materials when radiation levels in their bodies exceeded Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, the union said.

″One guy has been on restriction nonstop for 10 years. He can’t get his body count down,″ said Roger Birchfield, committeeman for the Oil, Chemical and Atomics Workers union. ″Seventy-five percent of our membership has something wrong they feel is related to uranium - kidney problems, bone problems, skin problems.″

Navy officials say they no longer can wait out the dispute and want the Department of Energy’s new Savannah River Plant nuclear fuel facility in South Carolina to open within a year. Navy officials had hoped to use both plants for fuel, but now may switch all purchases to the Savannah plant.

″The Navy needs a reliable supply of nuclear fuel to support its increasing fleet of nuclear-powered ships,″ said Dan Butler, Energy Department spokesman for the assistant secretary for nuclear energy.

McKee, in his letter in November to Rep. James H. Quillen, R-Tenn., whose district includes the plant, said the strike has forced the Navy to act quickly.

″Suffice it to say, our inventories are dwindling to the point that I am exploring what might be done to bring the Savannah River Plant into production earlier and to accelerate introduction there of another fuel material for which I had been counting on NFS,″ McKee wrote.

Quillen said he fears the plant may fold because of the labor dispute, taking with it more than 700 jobs that have been the bread and butter of this rugged, remote mountainous area of eastern Tennessee since 1957.

In August, the NRC said the company could use clerks, engineers and other salaried workers to resume production. The plant is running at about 25 percent to 50 percent of capacity, although its normal volume is classified.

Workers have fed a steady stream of health and safety complaints to the company and the NRC since the strike began, alleging lax monitoring and releases of uranium into the air, among other things.

Company officials refer all safety questions to the NRC, but contend the plant is operated safely.

The NRC’s stand on the plant’s safety ″should be obvious,″ said agency spokesman Ken Clark. ″The plant has continued operating.″

Only one major violation of federal standards has been cited, when the NRC fined the plant $15,000 in December for allowing uranium to build up in a ventilator system, he said.

Strikers say they do not let fear of losing the company sway their demands.

″It crosses our mind, naturally,″ said Birchfield. ″But I don’t think it has that much an effect. I can’t imagine the company letting their contract get withdrawn by the government. ... For the plant to operate is a common goal.″

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