METROPOLIS — On March 11, 2011, a nearly six-minute, 9.0 magnitude earthquake violently shook Japan, unleashed a deadly tsunami and set off three nuclear reactor meltdowns resulting in high radioactive releases that forced thousands to flee their homes.
Following the disaster, numerous countries shut down reactors and implemented nuclear power phase-out policies.
Six years later, the long-term effects of the Fukushima disaster are delivering a hard economic punch to deep Southern Illinois. Honeywell announced on Monday it intends to idle its Metropolis plant that produces uranium hexafluoride, or UF6 — an essential compound used to produce enriched uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants — in the first quarter of 2018.
It’s the only plant in the country that converts uranium ore into UF6, and it’s one of only a handful of private industrial employers in Massac County and the surrounding Ohio River Valley region that provides workers with steady middle-class wages.
In announcing plans to indefinitely close its plant and reduce its workforce by 170 full-time and 105 contract workers, Honeywell cited “significant challenges” facing the nuclear industry, which the company says is oversupplied with uranium hexafluoride, or UF6.
“In particular, the decrease in demand in Japan and Germany following the Fukushima disaster has had a significant impact on the industry and continues to create an over-supplied market for the uranium fuel cycle, and a downward trend in the uranium markets,” a Honeywell spokesperson wrote in a emailed statement.
Citing an analysis from Energy Resource International, Honeywell stated that since the Fukushima disaster, global demand for nuclear fuel has dropped 15 percent, and demand is not anticipated to rise before 2020.
"As a result of this business outlook, Honeywell plans to temporarily idle production of UF6 at its Metropolis site, while maintaining minimal operations to support a future restart should business conditions improve,” the company wrote.
A spokesperson said the company will keep 26 Honeywell employees and 18 contractors at the facility to support minimal on-site operations to ensure a successful restart.
“While industry analysts indicate that demand is unlikely to increase between now and 2020, we will actively monitor market conditions to determine optimal conditions to support restart,” the company’s statement continued.
The news hit hard in Metropolis, population 6,300.
There’s never a good time to lose 170 full-time jobs and dozens of other contract positions in a town the size of Metropolis.
“But then you get around your holiday seasons, it’s just devastating,” Metropolis Mayor Billy McDaniel said. “There’s probably not too many people this doesn’t directly affect. Either it affects you directly or you know someone who works at that plant.”
McDaniel said Harrah’s Metropolis casino is the town’s largest employer by the numbers, and local governments, schools and the hospital also employ a substantial chunk of the town’s population. But Honeywell “is way at the top of the pecking order as far as high-income types of jobs,” he said. Other industrial employers include Cook Coal Terminal, LaFarge North America cement plant and Dynegy’s coal-fired power plant in nearby Joppa.
McDaniel said the state will assist with retraining and job placement, and employees will be eligible for state unemployment insurance benefits while they look for other work. But it will be hard for many workers to find something that pays as well in the nearby region, he said.
Of Illinois’ southernmost nine counties The Southern Illinoisan profiled in its recent “Forsaken Egypt” article outlining deteriorating financial conditions across Illinois’ Ohio River Valley region, Massac County fares slightly better than most of the others.
The 981-mile Ohio River begins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and borders or runs through six …
Metropolis — home of Superman — is the second-largest city in the region, behind only Harrisburg in size. But Massac County also has seen worsening poverty rates and associated social problems. For example, the number of children classified as low-income at Metropolis Unit School District 1, increased from 52 percent in 2013 to 62 percent in 2017. In the county, about one in four children younger than the age of 18 live below the poverty line. The number of people receiving food stamp benefits increased more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.
“We all know a big portion of problems in any family is the economic part of it,” the mayor said. “Income and wages and things like that have a big impact on that family and what they deal with every day. It affects the children, the father the mother, and it does try your community.”
Metropolis Works began operation in 1958 under a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, according to Honeywell’s website. It has operated as a private converter since 1968 under a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 2012, the site was upgraded to comply with post-Fukushima federal regulatory standards to withstand tornadoes and earthquakes.
In a statement addressing Honeywell’s temporary closure, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, whose district includes Metropolis, took a shot at the energy policies of former President Barack Obama’s administration.
“For all the previous administration’s talk of green jobs, their policies consistently failed to recognize both the environmental and economic benefits of clean, reliable nuclear power,” Shimkus said. “The Trump Administration thinks differently, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent proposal to more appropriately value the resilient, baseload power generated by nuclear, as well as coal, plants has launched an important and ongoing conversation in Washington.
“As the sole facility in the U.S. that produces an essential component of nuclear fuel, Honeywell’s Metropolis Works is critical to the future of U.S. nuclear energy dominance. My thoughts will remain with the workers, the families, and the entire community as the debate over nuclear energy moves forward.”
Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner, said the state, as it always does in situations such as this, immediately mobilized the Illinois Department of Commerce to reach out to the company to provide rapid response and workforce support to dislocated workers. “The department will work alongside other state partners to provide career and training services to these Illinoisans during this period of transition,” she wrote.
In the meantime, many people throughout the region wonder when the economic hurting will cease.
As Housing and Urban Development works to shut down public housing complexes and relocate 400 people from Cairo, the Department of Labor considers permanently closing a Job Corps site in Golconda that employed about 60, and American Coal Co. downsizes operations in Galatia, Honeywell’s announcement that it is letting go of a cumulative 275 workers represents yet another devastating blow — and a big one — in a tough year for the fast depopulating communities in the greater Ohio valley region of Southern Illinois.
“It’s overwhelming, to be honest, at this point,” said state Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie, D-Elizabethtown. Finnie said she reached out to the company to ask if their decision had anything to do with the business climate in Illinois, such as worker’s compensation costs or the labor environment.
Though the Honeywell plant has been beset by labor strife in recent years, including the company employing lengthy lockouts of employees represented by the United Steelworkers 7-669 as contract talks broke down, Finnie said the company assured her that was unrelated to the decision announced Monday.
As well, she said Honeywell officials told her that while they have ideas for improving the business climate in Illinois, this particular decision is a "straightforward supply and demand problem" and unrelated to any changes the company thinks might help their other operations in the state.
“It’s really out of our hands and there’s nothing we can do at this point,” she said.
Finnie said her heart goes out to those receiving this news at the holiday.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify the nature of the labor strife between Honeywell and United Steelworkers 7-669. Workers were locked out for months by Honeywell as contract talks broke down. The original version incorrectly stated that workers walked out over negotiations.