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Devastated Area May Place Its Hopes in Nuclear Waste Storage

January 10, 1988|JIM NAUGHTON | The Washington Post

The federal government is bound by law to accept spent fuel rods from the nation's 107 nuclear reactors by 1998. Those rods are currently stored at the reactor sites, which is where opponents of the MRS think they should stay.

"There's never been a high-level nuclear waste dump," says Andrew Maier, a spokesman for Save Our Mountains, an environmental group based in Hinton, a two-hour drive from McDowell County. "This is untested technology. There's just no telling what will happen."

But proponents of the plant say it would give the nation a more flexible nuclear waste disposal policy. "The MRS is about as safe and innocuous a facility as could be constructed anywhere," says Paul Childress, a nuclear engineer with Babcock and Wilcox, which would build the casks used to store the fuel rods. "If it were nothing but engineering criteria it could be operated in downtown Manhattan. I have tens of cousins working in coal mines. I'd much rather have them working in a plant like this."

Economic Boom

The plant would undoubtedly be an economic boon to McDowell County. The area's infrastructure is archaic. Most sewage is dumped, untreated, into local creeks. The new plant would mean widened roads, new sewers and improved medical emergency facilities.

It would generate about 1,500 construction jobs and take nearly a decade to complete. The plant would employ roughly 700 people, and Corcoran figures there would be at least another 1,000 jobs in support industries.

Further, the federal government would award the state a $50-million bonus for accepting the plant, $20 million each year the plant is under construction and $50 million each of the 50 years it is expected to be in use. By law, one-third of that money would be directed to the county.

The centerpiece of the plan is a 1,000-acre facility to which spent radioactive fuel rods would be shipped in steel-and-concrete casks. At the plant these casks would be opened and the rods "consolidated" into larger casks. These 22-foot-tall casks would be stored on a pad in a secured area of the plant, in the open air.

The morning after his night-school presentation, David Corcoran is hustling through the offices of The Welch Daily News.

"Welcome to my nuclear disaster area," he says. There are books and papers piled on the desk top, the couch and most of the chairs.

Corcoran is a breathing stereotype, the busy small-town editor, doing three things at once and feeling guilty that he is not doing four. His newspaper's circulation has fallen from 10,500 to 8,700 in the last year. To offset the losses he's started smaller papers in the outlying towns, but still he feels as though he is not bailing fast enough.

Embedded Unemployment

The problem, he says, is that in the last two years what used to be cyclical unemployment has become structural unemployment. "When these companies started shutting down mines they said: 'Look, we're bringing in a transition team. We're paying a lot of bucks to have these people come in to tell you how to write up your resumes. And you move to New York or you move to Washington or you move to Atlanta. Don't stay. Don't stay because we're closed.' "

McDowell County had 13,000 working residents in 1978, he says, and has fewer than 7,000 today.

"All our friends are leaving for North and South Carolina, and then like the birds of Capistrano coming back at Thanksgiving," Corcoran says. "There's so many South Carolina license plates here that on holidays when you wake up you think you're in Myrtle Beach."

The social costs of economic dislocation became evident quickly. Researchers from Harvard University found widespread malnutrition. Enrollment in free breakfast programs increased tenfold. At Welch General Hospital, 80% of the caseload is now indigent care.

That people need jobs is obvious enough, Corcoran says, but the local work force is not particularly attractive. Of 3,000 people seeking help from local job services, 700 have finished high school and 13 have finished college.

Local economic development experts would like to see the miners take matters into their own hands, but that isn't likely. McDowell is the most corporately held county in Appalachia. Three-quarters of its land belongs to energy companies. Consequently, there is little opportunity to diversify.

So Corcoran has placed his faith in the MRS. "The other side always gives the 'What ifs' arguments," he says. " 'What if there is a wreck? What if all of southern West Virginia is contaminated?' I say, 'What if we just sit here and do nothing about the 6,000 people who are out of jobs?'

"I dream about this stuff at night," he says. "And I was a person who never dreamed. I may be wrong, but I feel like I am promoting a project that is really the only attainable thing that we've got."

Along about 10 a.m., Buck Wade pulls up in front of the UMW's subdistrict office in Welch. He's driving a fat old Buick that none of the guys has ever seen before.

"Is that a new car?" Jeff Hazzard calls. He isn't serious.

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