Usually it’s kryptonite that besets the home of the Man of Steel, but not this time:
The uranium can be found at the Honeywell plant, located just west of town and, as is frequently pointed out these days, just upwind. The plant — an unremarkable, hulking mass just off the highway — has been around more than five decades. It rarely registers much of a thought here, except as a provider of hundreds of good-paying jobs handling dangerous material. That was, until June 28.
That’s when Honeywell locked out its 220 union workers over a contract dispute. The union of production and maintenance workers picketed outside. The company hired replacement staff. The plant ran in slow motion for weeks, staying clear of any difficult work. But Honeywell recently announced it plans to restart full production early this month.
Much of the replacement staff, says Honeywell, comes from the Shaw Group, an experienced nuclear-power operator, but some townsfolk — and apparently the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is watching the situation — are worried about something going wrong at the plant, what with all that radioactive material and all.
The Metropolis facility is the only one in the States that converts raw yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride. A similar plant in eastern Oklahoma, operated by Sequoyah Fuels, operated through 1986, then switched to recycling of depleted UF6. The reason:
On January 4, 1986, Sequoyah Fuels Corporation experienced a rupture in an overfilled uranium hexafluoride cylinder that contained an estimated 29,500 pounds of gaseous uranium hexafluoride. The incident led to the death of a 26 year-old worker, James Harrison, and the hospitalization of 37 of the 42 onsite workers. Health care providers examined up to 100 people, many from the local community, for health effects and 21 were hospitalized for short periods.
That plant was permanently shuttered in 1993.