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Latest News - July 2011

July 17, 2011
Managers work 12-hour, sleepover shifts while hundreds from union picket outside Nine Mile Point
By: Rick Moriarty/The Post-Standard

Nothing is normal at the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in Scriba these days.

Inside, managers who have supervised or trained reactor operators and other essential workers for years suddenly find themselves running the site’s two powerful nuclear reactors.

Some are required to work 12-hour shifts, watching over gauges, pumps and other critical equipment for four straight days. They are not allowed to leave the power plant during that time.

For entertainment during their 12 hours of daily off time, they watch television, play pool or foosball, or go for jogs. When it’s time to sleep, they plunk themselves down in sleeping bags on their office floors. A few have pitched tents on the grounds.

Outside, up to 200 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 97 work picket lines at the main entrance to the nuclear station’s 900-acre grounds, greeting some of those managers and anyone else driving into the plant with boos and cat calls.

“Turn around!” they shout. “Go home!”

Most of the vehicles zip right past striking union members, the drivers doing their best to look straight ahead. Some partially cover their faces with a hand as they drive through the intersection of Lake View Road and Route 1A on their way into the plant.

Friday morning, one driver headed for the plant gunned his engine, squealed his tires and sped through the intersection. An Oswego County sheriff’s deputy quickly pulled him over and wrote a ticket, drawing cheers from the union members.

“That’s justice right there,” said one striker.

Many of the vehicles entering the plant Friday morning bore license plates from Florida, Arkansas and other states — indications, say union officials, that plant owner Constellation Energy Nuclear Group is hiring temporary workers to supplement management employees.

As the strike by 460 members of the IBEW enters its ninth day today, both sides are digging in for what could be a long haul.

The union, which represents 580 of Nine Mile Point’s about 1,000 employees, walked out July 9 after contract negotiations with Baltimore-based Constellation broke down over pension benefits. The union’s members include 120 security officers who are not allowed to strike and have remained on the job.

The strike is the first in the 41-year history of Nine Mile Point and a rarity in the nuclear industry. The last to occur at a nuclear plant was a 77-day strike in 2003 at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey.

Nine Mile Point, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, generates an awesome amount of power. Its two reactors — Unit 1 went online in 1970 and Unit 2 in 1988 — pump out a combined 1,768 megawatts of electricity, enough to power nearly 1.8 million homes. Unit 2’s 530-foot tall cooling tower is a regional landmark. The plume of vapor coming from the tower can be seen for miles.

IBEW officials say their last discussion with Constellation consisted of a phone conference arranged by a federal mediator Tuesday. It didn’t last long.

“It was about 20 minutes, and the mediator spoke at least 50 percent of the time,” union negotiator Marty Currier told pickets outside the plant Friday morning.

Constellation indicated during the phone conference that it was not willing to modify its last contract offer, and union negotiators said the IBEW still would not accept it, Currier said.

“We need to stand strong and fight for what we deserve,” Currier told the striking workers. “We’re going to ultimately get them back to the table, and we’re going to ultimately get you back to work.”

Jill Lyon, speaking for Constellation, said no discussions are scheduled but that the company was working with the mediator to resume talks.

“Our goal remains to achieve a contract,” she said. “We value our people and want them to come back to work.”

In the meantime, the company is running the two reactors at Nine Mile Point with managers and supervisors who are trained and qualified to operate the plant safely, she said. Since the strike began, both reactors have been running at 100 percent power with no problems, she said.

“Everyone here is committed,” she said. “We’re seeing people doing a great job.”

But union officials say the plant is being run with less than half of the roughly 1,000 workers who normally operate Nine Mile Point.

Lyon declined to say how many people are still on the job at Nine Mile. She said certain critical employees — she would not say how many — are working 12-hour shifts for four days, followed by four days off. During their four days on duty, they are sequestered at the plant even during their off time to ensure adequate staffing, she said.

“That’s just something we had in place as part of our contingency plan,” she said. “We’ll determine how long we stay with that type of schedule. That’s not all the personnel. The people working the Monday through Friday jobs are going home.”

To ensure the employees do not become tired, they are not allowed to work during their 12-hour off-duty periods, she said.

The arrangement makes for some odd working conditions. The “sequestered” employees spend much of their work and off time in the same area, said Rich Semione, a security officer who joined the picket line Friday morning after his shift at the plant ended.

“A lot stay right in their office,” he said. “They work there, rest there and sleep there.”

Six small tents have been set up outside the plant’s training center, and at least one Winnebago-type camper is parked on the grounds, he said.

Federal regulators, who have increased their oversight of Nine Mile Point, said they have not noticed any safety problems.

Union members, however, question the company’s ability to operate the plant safely with the major reduction in personnel and the fact that many of the people running the plant have spent years in supervisory roles, not actually operating or testing machinery. They said that at some point, fatigue will become a factor for the sequestered workers.

“I can’t imagine trying to sleep on a blow-up mattress and being rested the next day,” said Ken Cherchio, a reactor operator manning the picket line Friday.

Another reactor operator, Rich Delfino, said the plant’s nuclear reactors would quickly shut themselves down if something went wrong. But operators would then have to fully cool the reactors, which can take a day. And it would take four days to bring the reactors back online, he said.

Leon Albrecht, a chief chemistry technician at Nine Mile, said Constellation likely is putting off preventive maintenance tasks and all but the minimum required testing for things such as contaminants in cooling water. Contaminants can corrode important equipment, leading to premature shutdowns, he said.

“We do maintenance to keep the plant operating for 40 years,” he said. “That babying is not being done.”

Diane Screnci, speaking for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the commission has four inspectors assigned to Nine Mile — two more than usual — ensuring that inspectors are at the plant 24 hours a day to look for safety issues. So far, no problems have been found, she said.

Glenn Dentel, NRC branch chief, said Constellation has postponed some nonessential maintenance at the plant. That does not violate regulations, but if the strike drags on, the NRC will decide whether that maintenance needs to be done, he said.

“We’re going to make sure that they operate safely,” he said. “And if we identify issues, we’ll raise those and ensure that they’re addressed and that they are properly operating the plant.”

David Lochbaum, nuclear safety project director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said fatigue and the postponement of nonessential maintenance will probably not cause safety problems in the short run. But over the long run, the unusual work schedules, reduced work force and delayed maintenance could become issues, he said.

“The real question is, how long can they sustain that?” he said.



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