Strike at VT nuclear plant delayed

A tentative agreement was reached late Friday in a contract dispute involving Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and about 157 workers, averting - for now - the possibility of a strike, a plant spokesman said. Negotiators for the plant's owners and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers agreed to terms and the union's rank-and-file workers will vote Monday, according to plant spokesman Larry Smith.

Jim Farrell, a spokesman for Utility Workers Union of America Local 369 in Braintree, Mass., which had planned to gather with Vermont Yankee's union workers in a strategy session Saturday, said the session had been called off because an agreement had been reached. George Clain, the union's business manager, could not immediately be reached for comment. A telephone message left at union headquarters was not immediately returned.

"This averts anything awful happening at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow," said Smith, referring to a deadline after which union leaders had said a job action was possible.

Terms of the deal were not available.

The agreement came on a day in which Vermont Yankee officials moved to quell public concern about safety.

Their leaders reached a tentative agreement with plant owners last week, but rank-and-file members rejected it in a vote Tuesday.

On Friday, a handful walked a picket line across the street from a hotel where negotiations were under way, carrying signs that read "Honk if you hate greed," "Entergy Vermont Yankee hanging union out to dry" and "I don't want to strike, but I will" as passing motorists beeped their horns in solidarity.

"I'm looking at retirement and they're going to be taking my benefits away," said Dave Truesdell, 60, a chemist who has worked at Vermont Yankee for three decades. "I'll just have to work until I die. That's what they want anyway."

The union has given Vermont Yankee 72-hour advance notice of a possible job action, and the 72 hours expires Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

Smith said the plant -- running at 50 percent power since Tuesday's incident -- would continue operating even if a strike occurred, with nonunion supervisors and managers stepping in for the workers if they go out on strike.

"This is 157 out of 500 workers. Part of our contingency plan is to have all of those positions fully available with our senior staff, training instructors, people that normally provide oversight or supervision over these folks who may choose to not be on their job," said Smith.

At issue are wages and benefits, he said.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said strikes have hit nuclear plants in the U.S. at least three times before, most recently in 2003 at the Oyster Creek plant in Forked River, N.J. That lasted three months.

The NRC has a plan ready to go into effect in the event of a strike.

"We would have round-the-clock coverage for at least the first four weeks," he said in an e-mail.

Specially assigned staff would be looking at "whether required positions were being properly staffed; whether there were any human performance issues due to fatigue, overtime use, unfamiliarity with activities, etc.; and whether there are any problems getting specialty maintenance workers."

Workers said the plant would be less safe if replacements step into the union jobs, but plant officials rejected the assertion.

Safety has been a major concern this week.

On Tuesday, a huge section of the 50-foot tall housing that surrounds a bank of 11 "cells" in a cooling tower collapsed suddenly in a shower of water, wood, plastic and asbestos, forcing the plant to cut power in half.

Sabotage and terrorism have been ruled out as causes, although a state homeland security official was among those at Vermont Yankee on Friday.

The two cooling towers are used to cool water that has been used to cool plant components before it can be returned to the Connecticut River.

Vermont Yankee officials say the structure is not related to safety issues, but nuclear watchdog groups said the incident calls into question other safety assurances made by Vermont Yankee's owners and want it shut down.

On Friday, plant officials showed the damage publicly for the first time, admitting small groups of news reporters, photographers and TV news crews in to see it and ask questions. They said cleanup won't begin in earnest until they understand what caused the collapse.

"It looks worse than what it is," said John Dreyfuss, director of nuclear safety assurance, who said the plant will not return to full power for days or weeks.

"Certainly, we want to understand what happened here," he said, standing next to the collapsed section as representatives of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the state and Vermont Yankee inspected the wreckage. "We need to understand the cause. We are very deliberately dismantling this cell here."

He said it did not appear the collapse was related to the plant's boost in power last year, from a 540-megawatt capacity to a 610-megawatt capacity.

The New England Coalition, an anti-nuclear group, had warned that boosting the plant's output could result in just such a collapse.

A consulting firm inspected the cooling towers and reported they were in good shape in 2005. The cooling tower structure was inspected this spring and found to be in good condition, said plant spokesman Rob Williams.


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