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Duke Energy, union's contract talks raise safety concerns at nuke plant

Published Dec. 5, 2013

Duke Energy's collective bargaining contract with 1,800 electrical workers in Florida expired this week, prompting a federal review of the shuttered Crystal River nuclear plant in case of a strike.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced late Tuesday that it will perform an inspection of Duke's strike contingency plans for Crystal River.

Though Duke's collective bargaining agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 433 expired at midnight Monday, the contract contains a provision for a 60-day "good faith" negotiation period.

But union representatives are concerned that the utility is willing to see the workers walk off the job to get the new contract it wants.

Federal regulators said they intend to ensure the safety of the nuclear plant, if negotiations continue to erode.

"The NRC will closely monitor operations if a strike occurs to ensure plant safety and adherence to federal regulations," Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said in a statement.

Federal regulators are particularly concerned about a strike because the IBEW represents operations, maintenance, chemistry, radiation protection and warehouse personnel at the Crystal River nuclear plant.

Although Duke announced the permanent closure of the plant in February, the utility still stores unused and spent fuel rods on the site. And other radioactive material will continue to be a hazard until Duke fully decommissions the site, which will take decades.

Duke, which has 1.7 million customers in Florida, and the union have been in a contract dispute since negotiations began Oct. 15. Dave Scanzoni, a spokesman for the utility, said the negotiations are continuing under the agreed-upon 60-day extension.

Union representatives say Duke wants to cut the health and life insurance benefits of union retirees, as the utility did with nonunion retirees earlier this fall. In addition, the IBEW, which represents about 1,800 of the 4,000 union and nonunion Duke employees in the state, says the utility wants to eliminate spouse benefits of current workers, restrict holiday benefits and reduce sick pay for employees.

Most troubling to the union is language proposed by Duke that would essentially end any effectiveness the union might have for its Duke workers in the state. It states: "Duke Energy retains the right to amend, modify or terminate its benefits plans in any respect and at any time, and neither its benefits, nor your plan participation will be considered a contract for future employment," according the union's website.