USW Atomic Workers Look to the Future at Biannual AEWC Meeting

Meeting in person for the first time since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, representatives from across the USW’s atomic sector devoted a portion of their biannual meeting to reindustrialization of the former Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons production sites – a first for the group.

Pictured: USW Atomic Energy Workers Council

The May 22-23 Atomic Energy Workers Council (AEWC) meeting in Washington, D.C., broached many familiar topics, including health and safety, benefits, relations with contractors, as well as possibilities for redevelopment and jobs once the cleanup work is done.

The $62 billion the bipartisan infrastructure bill allotted to the DOE presents a number of opportunities for charting a future path for USW-represented sites if the council continues pushing to ensure the resources are used judiciously, said USW International Vice President Roxanne Brown.

“Think about how we can be more strategic about how we can tap sources of money that we never tapped previously,” she said. “What is clear is that energy is the moment we are in right now, and this council, sector and sites can be part of that future.”

Kate Gordon, senior advisor to DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm, discussed the agency’s new Office of Clean Energy Deployment for place-based initiatives, that the bipartisan infrastructure law created in December 2021. She said these clean energy technology demonstration projects, like small modular reactors, clean hydrogen and carbon capture, could be sited at DOE’s cleanup locations to provide continuing work.

AEWC President Jim Key and Local 689 President Herman Potter also raised the possibility for recycling precious metals like copper and nickel that are available at some of the sites. These metals are needed for electric vehicle batteries. Key added that the sites have lots of land for energy or defense-related businesses.

“I appreciate the USW’s vision,” said William (Ike) White, DOE’s acting assistant secretary for environmental management, in response to the reindustrialization ideas. “This is the creative thinking we need.”

Pictured: William (Ike) White, acting assistant secretary for environmental management, Department of Energy

Reindustrialization opportunities

The AEWC’s agenda also reflected the emphasis on reindustrialization. Brown arranged for three other DOE officials to speak on the nuclear fuel cycle and supply chain and advanced nuclear projects.

“With the weaponization of oil and gas and our 20 percent dependence on Russian low-enriched uranium, people understand why we need a reliable source of fuel,” said Andy Griffith, DOE deputy assistant secretary for nuclear fuel cycle and supply chain.

Low-enriched uranium is the basic material used to fabricate nuclear fuel for reactors. Griffith said the DOE is on the cusp of starting up a demonstration project to produce nuclear fuel at the former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant site.

He also discussed various advanced nuclear reactors being developed, and reassured Local 652 President Matt Chavez that his members would be needed at Idaho National Laboratory to operate the small modular reactor plant being built at the site because skilled operators are hard to find.

Brown urged the AEWC delegates to think about how they can utilize her role on DOE’s advisory council to the secretary to get the long-term projects needed at their sites. She said others on the advisory council are not always familiar with organized labor and its push for family sustaining jobs and robust supply chains.

Pictured: (L-R) Kate Gordon, senior advisor to the DOE secretary, and Roxanne Brown, USW International Vice President

“Let’s use our ability to educate others in DOE to our benefit,” she said. “We can list the DOE programs that are vital to this sector, and help you apply for grants to help reindustrialize your sites.”

The AEWC meeting included a report from each site and a discussion on harmonizing health care benefits through the Steelworker Health & Welfare plan. Delegates voted in the existing AEWC officers: Jim Key, president, and Matt Chavez and Ryan Christensen as vice presidents. Carey Montgomery accepted the recording secretary position. At the end of the meeting, council members agreed to keep the AEWC meetings in Washington, D.C., so they can talk to DOE and elected officials about their issues.

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