For a town in need of jobs, going nuclear was easy call

The oil town of Eunice, N.M., welcomed a uranium enrichment plant for its steady jobs. A canister of raw uranium awaits processing at the plant, operated by the European company Urenco.

Loretta Williams: To understand how a nuclear facility came to rest at this far edge of the high plains, you first have to understand what else is here. Hear that sound? That's the rhythmic squeak of a horse head oil pump. There's a pump jack every few blocks in Eunice, and thousands more stretching east, all the way past Odessa, Texas.  

Matt White: Our economy here has always has been based -- some on ranching, not a lot -- but more on the oil industry once it became started.  

That's Matt White, the silver-haired mayor of Eunice.  

White: Oil market goes down, guess what? Our economy tanks. Goes back up, we do great.  

This corner of New Mexico is littered with the ghosts of oil towns gone bust. Twelve years ago Eunice seemed headed in that same direction. Over the decades the population slid from 6,000 to about 2,500. Town leaders decided they needed to do something to get off the oil market roller coaster. At the same time Urenco, a European company, was looking for a place to build a nuclear enrichment plant in the United States. Urenco first tried towns in Louisiana, then Tennessee, but those communities worried about potential disaster. Eunice, however, saw opportunity. 

Barbershop owner Lynn White, and his customer John Alesworth, welcomed the nuclear facility because it would mean jobs not tied to oil and boost local business. Alesworth says he thinks the other towns let their fear get in the way of a good thing.

John Alesworth: The nuclear energy -- in my opinion -- is one of the safest forms of energy there is. There’s less accidents than any other one you can name. And why people are afraid of it is beyond me. It don't make sense.

Lynn White: But when you mention the word "nuclear," we go back to Three Mile Island. Everybody, "Uh! Oh! We couldn't do this!"

Alesworth: That's the problem: people don't understand it. They think it's real dangerous, gonna kill everybody.

A nuclear enrichment facility is not as dangerous as a nuclear power plant --it's one step in the production of nuclear fuel rods. But still, it does work with uranium.

Steve Cowne is Urenco's head of operations.

Steve Cowne: Most of the power plants in the world use a light water reactor with Uranium-235 as the primary constituent in the fissioning process.

Fission is the nuclear reaction that releases energy, but there's less than 1 percent of U-235 in the processed material called raw uranium. The enrichment facility takes that material and increases the U-235 to 3 to 5 percent, the range most commercial power plants require.

Cowne: When we're done with it, we take the Uranium hexafluoride that we've enriched and we ship it to the fuel fabricators. They turn it into fuel pellets and put them into their fuel rods and then they ship them to the nuclear power plants.

Cowne says about 350 employees operate the plant and there are as many as 1,000 construction-related jobs. Between Urenco and the current oil boom, the unemployment rate in the county around Eunice hovers around 4 percent -- half the national average. The population has surged and new restaurants and business are opening on Main Street. Not everyone is comfortable with the nuclear plant, of course, and the true test of the economy won't come until the oil boom ends. But Mayor White says he likes where things are headed.

White: As a mayor I know we need to grow as a town. If you don't have growth you’re going to die over the long play. You've gotta keep moving.  

I'm Loretta Williams for Marketplace.


This report is part of a public radio series, "Burn: An Energy Journal" from SoundVision Productionsand produced in association with APM with support from the National Science Foundation.  

About the author

Loretta Williams is a producer for "BURN: An Energy Journal."

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