West Virginia courts nuclear-waste dump site. But critics debate whether $700 million project would help depressed economy

Welch, W.Va., is a place of narrow streets, old-fashioned shops, and a century-old tradition of mining coal in the Allegheny Mountains. Now, some of Welch's prominent citizens want to leapfrog into the nuclear age. Their proposal: buoy the region's sinking economy with a $700 million facility to store the nation's nuclear waste until a permanent site is ready.

``We need jobs right now,'' says David H. Corcoran, publisher of the Welch Daily News and a leading proponent of the idea. ``If we do not get jobs right now, then the human misery, which is the real tragedy here in this county, will continue and get worse.''

The idea has generated a statewide controversy. Critics call the facility - officially, the Monitored Retrievable Storage or MRS - a nuclear waste dump. The state's junior United States senator, John D. Rockefeller IV, says it would hurt the economy. Gov. Arch Moore, who hasn't taken a position, maintains it would be illegal under state law.

So far no state has stepped forward to accept the nation's 14,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that has been generated by commercial reactors. The need for storage is becoming more apparent: Currently the waste is stored at more than 100 reactors in 30 states. Unless some facility is found, those reactors will have to make space for another 26,000 metric tons by the year 2000.

But supporters of the MRS point to Welch. Along downtown streets, some shops are papered over or boarded up. The county's labor force has shrunk by one-third since 1980. On this particular day, a minister in a nearby town is packing up to leave.

``It's the highest [unemployment] we've had,'' says Pat Kadar, a 29-year veteran of the Welch Job Service. Of an active file of 3,000 job seekers here in McDowell County, her office was able to place only 600 in the past year. The county's unemployment rate, down from its peak of 31 percent in 1983, still leads the state. In May, according to state figures, it stood at 23.9 percent.

``The thing that disturbs me the most, and probably makes me more open to new ideas such as the MRS facility, is the fact that I see so many lives that have been shattered by unemployment,'' publisher Corcoran says. A recent medical team documented instances of starvation. A domestic violence agency opened an office here a year ago in the surrounding rural area. In the past five months, there have been four suicides, he says.

The slump has lasted so long because the region's high-grade coal, used to make steel, is no longer in great demand, economists say. When American steel plants started closing, large mining companies pulled out of McDowell County. Now small operators run the mines.

``I just run a whole lot skinnier,'' says Ted Osborne, president of SOHO. The company operates nine mines with half the miners of corporate predecessor, A.T. Massey Co. Instead of 80 managers, Mr. Osborne has four.

Even some union officials are seeing the handwriting on the wall. ``A lot of these people will never go back to the mines,'' says Mike Burdiss of the United Mine Workers.

The threat of a permanent slump in coal has made the 600-employee MRS all the more attractive. Federal officials say it could create up to 5,700 jobs in southern West Virginia. Trucks or trains would bring used fuel rods from commercial nuclear reactors to the facility. MRS employees would repack the rods in large bundles and store them until they could be buried permanently out West.

Before Congress can even consider West Virginia as an MRS site, it must rule on Tennessee. In March, the Energy Department asked Congress to approve MRS construction in that state's abandoned Clinch River breeder reactor. But in May, Tennessee's governor and legislature officially opposed the idea.

MRS supporters here say they want to position West Virginia as a backup site to Tennessee. After an initially positive response earlier this year, the public seems about evenly split over the idea, Governor Moore said. ``The person who has to make this decision is not going to want to have to fight a division of public opinion,'' especially when the state law would have to be changed.

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