By Malia Rulon
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - More than 100 workers at a closed uranium plant in southern Ohio will keep their jobs for at least another year under an agreement reached Friday by the plant's owner and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Rep. Rob Portman, whose district includes the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant in Piketon, said the deal was reached hours before the 116 workers were to be laid off at noon.
"The commitment is being made here that these are highly skilled workers that we want to keep at the plant," said Portman, a Republican.
The contract from the DOE for cleanup work at the plant expired this week. Under the agreement, the workers' jobs will change from doing cleanup work to keeping the plant on standby mode.
"I just cried when they told us we were saved. We've been on pins and needles," said Jeanne Cisco, who has worked at the plant as a process operator for 29 years.
Cisco, of Waverly, is serving as a full-time benefits representative for the workers' union, a post that is dependent on her job at the plant.
Cisco, 47, is one year away from qualifying for her pension and would have been left without benefits if she had been laid off.
"We've already had so many layoffs," Cisco said. "It's like a sinking ship, and that would have been the last blow."
The plant has been on standby since 2001, when USEC Inc., the Energy Department contractor that runs the plant, cut 530 jobs and consolidated its uranium-enrichment operation at a sister plant in Paducah, Ky.
About 1,200 workers remain at the Ohio plant.
Plant officials said in July that 116 cleanup jobs would be cut if the federal government didn't approve $26 million to continue its deposit removal program in 2004.
That funding hasn't materialized because Congress hasn't yet passed a budget for the 2004 federal fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. Portman said the agreement includes a promise to USEC that the budget, which is expected to pass in the next few weeks, will include additional funds for the plant.
The company received $192 million from the federal government last year to keep the plant on standby and for cleanup projects. It's slated to receive about $280 million next year, Portman said.
The deposit removal program, which is about 40 percent complete, uses a chemical process to reduce uranium compounds from the plant's idled equipment.
It was unclear whether that program would be continued. The Energy Department had said that it isn't considered a high priority.
Dan Minter, president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy union, which represents the workers, said the job functions of the workers wasn't clear.
"They will continue to do a mission here. To define it exactly isn't possible yet, but it will be similar to what they were doing in the past," said Minter, who faced losing his job.
USEC Spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said Gov. Bob Taft and several other members of the Ohio delegation were significant factors in the agreement being reached.
"We hope a permanent solution to the funding issue can be reached soon," she said.
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