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In Aiken County, S.C. Plutonium recycling plant creates demand for workers—and training!

Feb 10, 2014

In Aiken County, S.C.
Plutonium recycling plant creates demand for workers—and training!

Mark Lemon
Business Manager Mark Lemon

For union construction trades, South Carolina isn’t necessarily the first place one thinks of for a success story. Union construction market share in the state is believed to be about 3 percent. 

However, the sheet metal industry in the state, during this lackluster recovery, has created a sparkling exception. Membership in SMART Local No. 399 (North Charleston, S.C.) has expanded to 430 today—from 125 five years ago—according to Mark Lemon, business manager of Local 399.

“It’s not as easy as those numbers might make it sound,” Mr. Lemon said recently. “There is a lot of behind-the-scenes effort involved in supporting this kind of growth and getting the members prepared to do industrial work.”

Training facility booms

Building Outside
The 8,200-sq.-ft. training facility

Not long ago, Local 399 occupied only a portion of its 8,200-sq.-ft. training facility in New Ellenton, S.C. Much of the place (formerly a barn) was leased out to another entity. There was a reluctance to invest heavily in the place more than five years ago, with the training effort consisting of one class (one night a week).

Welding Booth
The training facility boasts 15 welding booths.

But now, the leased space has been taken back; sheet metal training fills the facility. Classes are held many nights of the week, with specialty training offered on Fridays and Saturdays. The building is actually open all day, Monday to Friday.

What’s more important, of course, is what’s in the space. It now boasts 15 welding booths—with 15 new machines.

“Beyond welding, we’re offering other types of industrial training,” Mr. Lemon revealed. “We have OSHA 10-hour training regularly. And there are classes covering hoisting and rigging.”

What’s driving demand

Readers of the Hebrew Bible who are familiar with the Book of Isaiah’s statement—“they shall beat their swords into plowshares”—will smile about the driver of Local 399’s growth. Two union contractors—one doing pre-fab, the other installation—have the work involved in constructing a Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in Aiken County, S.C., at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River site.

Classes are held many nights of the week
Classes are held many nights of the week.

What the heck is this place, referenced as “MOX” . . . ? It takes weapons-grade plutonium and converts it into a substance to fuel nuclear power plants (for more on the facility, see this Web page).

“The challenge on this job,” explained Steve Wood, director of the Environmental and Energy division for SMACNA member Superior Air Handling (Clearfield, Utah) and chair of SMACNA’s Industrial Contractors Council Steering Committee, “is that everything has to be done to nuclear standards. All of the HVAC systems are fabricated of stainless steel. Everything is done to NQA-1 standards.

“Typically, we’ll have 110 to 150 sheet metal workers onsite, and as many as 40 of them are certified welders. Everything is traceable. This is a nuclear facility—safety is extremely significant. Additionally, this is a very-high-profile project.”

The facility offers addtional types of industrial training
The facility offers additional types of industrial training.

 “The quality assurance program is at the nuclear level,” he said. “All materials and workmanship including welds—every single one—must be up to these standards. Everything we do is inspected and has to be to the highest standards. There can be no exceptions.”

In short, Local 399’s workers have to be trained to do all of this high-standard welding. There’s no alternative but to have the work performed to NQA-1 quality.

And so it is.