Georgians embrace jobs, not nuke fears

BAXLEY — As someone who has lived in this South Georgia hamlet most of his life, David Shipes, 66, remembers the nervous talk when the Edwin I. Hatch nuclear power plant was under construction here in the 1970s.

People worried if it would be safe, if they’d get sick, if there would ever be an accident. But by the time the second reactor was completed in 1979, the chatter had turned to something else: work. Plant Hatch was bringing it in and bolstering the local economy of Appling County and its neighbors.

“It keeps jobs here, so I go along with it,” said Shipes, a retired mill worker. “But if something went wrong, I’d probably change my mind real quick.”

As the nuclear crisis in Japan unfolds on the heels of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the residents of this village and in this county of 18,000, like people across the globe, have been riveted by it. And yet residents here feel a curious distance from it. Yes, there is a nuclear power station right in their backyard, but many here say they feel little danger.

“You could get hit by a car crossing the street,” Shipes pointed out.

The nuclear reactors at Plant Hatch are similar in design to the ones at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, said Carol Boatright, a spokeswoman for Georgia Power, which operates the plant.

But Georgia is at almost no risk for experiencing the sort of catastrophic events that have battered Japan, said several earth sciences experts at Georgia Tech.

“The risk isn’t zero, but it really is not very large at all,” said Andrew Newman, a Tech professor of geophysics and earthquake emergency management specialist for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. “We have fault lines in Georgia but they are not really active. They likelihood of an earthquake happening in Georgia at or above a magnitude 6 is maybe once every 500 to 1,000 years.”

He also stressed that it wasn’t the earthquake that ended up compromising the reactors in Japan, but the ensuing tsunami.

Living with trade-offs

After days of watching television and seeing the events unfold in Japan, 37-year-old Brad Clotfelter was reminded why he has always felt just a bit uneasy about the Hatch plant.

He lived in Atlanta for a few years but returned to his childhood home of Baxley and lives just 12 miles from the plant. The lure of wide open spaces and cheap property taxes brought him back, he said, but he doesn’t see the move as without risk. He’s like a lot of people who are concerned about the radiation associated with nuclear power, no matter how tightly it is regulated or contained.

“My mother died of leukemia. My neighbor died of lung cancer and my neighbor across the road had some type of lymphoma,” Clotfelter said. “I’ve thought maybe it was the plant, but I don’t know.”

But he’s not scared enough to leave a town that he has seen grow by leaps and bounds since the first reactor went on line in 1975. The second went on line in 1979.

“Look at this town,” said Clotfelter as a truck full of spindly pine tree trunks barreled by the Wholesale Appliance Depot store where he works. “It was nothing. Our primary export was lumber. Then the nuclear plant comes in and says, ‘Hey, we’re gonna provide all these jobs and donate money to the schools.’ And now look at us.

“But what’s the trade-off? You don’t get something for nothing.”

Next to him, co-worker Ryan Taylor, 18, strapped a refrigerator into the back of a pickup truck. Like so many in the town, the Hatch plant has provided his family with a comfortable lifestyle. They live less than three miles from the plant, well within the 10-mile emergency planning zone that would be among the first evacuated should the reactor become crippled.

But Taylor isn’t worried about a potential catastrophe. He said his father has worked at Hatch nearly 28 years, and Taylor wants to follow in his footsteps. He plans to get an engineering degree so he can work there as well.

“There’s really nothing to worry about,” Taylor said, dismissing his co-worker’s concerns with a shake of his head. “Around here, it’s a place you actually want to work. Good jobs and good money.”

Not losing sleep

Dane Bruce, the county director of emergency management, would be one of the first responders to any crisis. He also lives within the emergency planning zone surrounding the plant.

Georgia does not allow potassium iodide tablets, which help protect the thyroid from radiation, to be distributed to the general public in non-emergency situations, but Bruce has enough on hand in his office for first responders. Most of the 4,700 people who live within the emergency planning zone have the small, triangular emergency radios that are required of anyone living in that radius. Twice a year, Bruce’s department practices emergency drills.

Yet Bruce, a short, tight-muscled man, doesn’t expect there will ever come a day when he’ll have to respond to a nuclear incident. At least he hopes he doesn’t.

“To tell you the truth, I’m much more concerned about the chemical cars going down the highways and rail lines through this town than I am that nuclear plant,” Bruce said.

Like Bruce, David Shipes said he’s prayed for the people in Japan, but he hasn’t lost a night’s sleep over Plant Hatch.

“We’ve all got to live somewhere,” he said. “You just keep your fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong.”