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PALO -- The rejection of a contract offer from NextEra Energy has raised the possibility of a strike by operators and maintenance staff at Iowa's only nuclear plant.
When a mail-in vote by 150 workers at Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo was counted Thursday, a new three-year agreement did not have the votes to pass.
"The members have expressed their dissatisfaction with the last, best and final offer, and they have agreed to strike," said Dave George, business manager for Local 204 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The strike authorization vote passed by Local 204 members didn't cause an automatic strike upon rejection of the contract because the union is working under an extension of its contract that will end midnight, July 31. George said the extension had been indefinite, but NextEra recently exercised its right to terminate it on two weeks notice.
NextEra has made comprehensive plans to continue plant operations in the event of a strike, spokeswoman Renee Nelson said.
"In no way would we ever jeopardize the safe operation of our plant," Nelson said.
Many managers and supervisors at the plant have come up through the ranks of operations, Nelson said, and have been requalified so that they can perform their former duties in the event of a strike. She said the company also can pull in experienced personnel from its other nuclear plants and bring in contractors.
The union and NextEra had talks Friday in hopes they could lead to a renewal of negotiations.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen," George said. "Hopefully, we can work it out."
The union recently came off its first contract with Juno Beach, Fla.-based NextEra, a five-year deal with relatively few changes beyond wage increases.
In the negotiations, which began about six months ago, NextEra has offered wage increases of 1.25 percent in the first year, 1 percent in the second year, and 1 percent in the third year.
Friction points also included mandatory overtime language that the company wants in the contract, George said. While some workers feel the plant is inadequately staffed, they have voluntarily worked the overtime to fill staffing gaps as needed and don't believe they should be forced to work overtime, George said.
A third point of difference has been the company's desire for major changes to a negotiated insurance plan that would bring it more into line with the health insurance plan available to non-union employees at NextERa.
George said union members rejected NextEra's low wage increase offer partly because the company is highly profitable and can afford better. The company contends Alliant Energy's contract to buy most of the plant's electric output expires Feb. 14, 2013, and it does not have a customer contracted to buy power after that date, George said.
Nelson said pay levels at Duane Arnold Energy Center compare favorably with other plants in NextEra and the industry overall. She said the mandatory overtime requirements are common in the industry because of the need for a high degree of certainty in the work force.
The average income for a Duane Arnold employee in the bargaining unit was more than $100,000 in a normal year without a maintenance outage, according to NextEra Energy.
While a strike is not a certainty, George said Local 204 is concerned about the ramifications if NextEra decides to bring in substitute staff to operate the plant.
While skills such as welding and electrical wiring are often transferrable from one work site to another, "a nuclear power plant is different," George said.
Nuclear plants use different designs, and there are differences between plants of similar design, George said, but knowledge of the plant's design and operating history is important.
"My members, some of them have been there from the early days of the plant and know the idiosyncrasies," he said. "They know what to watch for."
Duane Arnold Energy Center has an output of 615 million watts, roughly the equivalent of the power needed to supply 600,000 homes.
Local 204 represents plant operations and maintenance staff. According to NextEra's web site, the plant's total employment is around 600.