Triple the Salary - Thanks To Nukes

Most residents like Sally Delk love the clean power and high paying jobs of nuclear power. But some fear the potential dangers are being ignored.

By Steve Hargreaves

salaryBAY CITY, Texas ( -- Minimum wage to $20 an hour.

That's what 28-year old mother-of-three Sally Delk hopes to do with a job at the local nuclear power plant.

Delk is currently enrolled in night classes at the community college here in town. In two years, she hopes to get a degree in nuclear technology, and turn a $7.25-an-hour job flipping burgers into a position at the plant making $15 to $20 an hour.

"I have three kids I have to support, and it's a very good job," Delk said, lingering after class on a recent evening. "I don't really know all the different jobs at the plant, but I know you can work your way up."

Most graduates from her program become skilled maintenance technicians, radiation protection specialists or operations assistants with a starting salary of about $40,000 a year.

But because there's room for advancement she could end up making even more.

A plant spokesman said that, in time, she shouldn't have any trouble reaching the average salary at the plant - $80,000 a year.

Delk's view on the local nuke plant, and on nuclear power in general, mirrors that of most residents in this rural county some 100 miles southwest of Houston along Texas's Gulf Coast.

People here think the country needs the power, they love the jobs and the taxes nuclear plants pay, and they aren't afraid of an accident

That's good news for the industry. As energy consumption and concerns over global warming grow, this carbon-free energy source is poised for major expansion.

Support in Bay City is not unanimous, there are a couple of critics in town. Some anti-nuclear activists say that communities around existing nuclear power plants have been blinded to the potential dangers of nuclear power by the high-paying jobs, and the fact that there hasn't been a major incident at a U.S. nuclear plant since 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

In Bay City, most residents see only the plus side. With a population of about 18,000, Bay City is the closest sizable town to the South Texas Project - A two-unit nuclear reactor that can provide enough power for 2 million Texas homes.

The plant wants to add two more reactors in what could be one of the first new nuclear power plant projects in 30 years.

"It's good for the community, dollarwise, and the power is needed," Steve Anderson, a 29-year Bay City resident who used to run a local tire company, said while sitting outside a local service station.

Although this part of Texas is home to many refineries and petrochemical companies, jobs are still a major draw. The nuclear plant already employs 1,200 people, and the expansion would add another 800. The $80,000 a year average wage goes a long way in a town where the median household income is just north of $30,000 a year.

"I'll be more independent, I'll be able to buy my own home," said Carla Lewis, a 29-year old student at the community college.

Lewis currently works at a nearby petrochemical plant, but is studying nuclear technology because the field pays better. She hopes to make $100,000 a year.

"I have children, and I'll be better able to provide for them," she said.

The opposition

A few people in town feel expanding the plant is not a good idea.

Susan Dancer is one. A 43-year old lifelong resident of Bay City, Dancer runs an animal rescue farm on the outskirts of town. Despite the fact that her husband works at the nuclear plant, she does not feel it has been beneficial for the community.

Although it pays about a third of the county's taxes, she feels it has been given too many tax breaks relative to its profitability. The infrastructure burdens the town bares, from adding new roads to handle the influx of people to building more schools, isn't worth the payoff.

And in addition to the constant threat of an accident, she also has an issue with the waste

Nuclear America

The government was supposed to build a central repository years ago, but that idea has been bogged down with technical and political problems. So for now, like other nuclear plants across the country, decades of waste is sitting just outside the reactor, waiting for a place to go.

"I can't let the community take on potentially tens of thousands of years of decommissioning and not have their eyes open," she said. "The community here is very impoverished, very small, and it's easy to intimidate it with misinformation."

National activists are also disheartened with what they feel is an undue bias in favor of nuclear plants in their host towns.

"We're not happy with the complacent attitude of some of the communities around the plants," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "They don't have an adequate perception of the risks."

The risks would include a accidental or terrorist-caused meltdown at a plant, which could potentially spread dangerous radioactive gas some 50 miles or more from the incident.

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