Spanish Town Cheers New Nuclear Waste Plant

You know Spain's unemployment rate is bad when villagers cheer the arrival of a nuclear waste facility in their backyard — because of the jobs it will bring. That's the case in one tiny Spanish hamlet. The town has been chosen to host a nuclear waste plant that's expected to create much-needed jobs. The mayor calls it "magnificent news."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To Spain now and a tiny hamlet south of Madrid. People there are cheering plans to turn their backyard into a nuclear waste dump. That's because unemployment is painfully high, so villagers lobbied for and won the waste site and the much-needed jobs it's expected to create.

Reporter Lauren Frayer traveled to the village and sent us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRONG WINDS)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is the land of Don Quixote, parched plains, merciless sun and wind. The old windmills are gone and its nuclear energy, or rather the radioactive waste that comes from it, that will determine the future of this tiny village, Villar de Canas. It's about an hour and half south of Madrid, in the land of La Mancha, where the jobless rate tops 30 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

FRAYER: In the town's only bar, I ask how many people have work.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

FRAYER: The regulars count on their fingers. There's Antonio, Juan and the mayor, they're the ones who have jobs. Ricardo Fernandez used to work in construction. He nods toward some half-built condos, left over from the housing bubble.

RICARDO FERNANDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: Me now? No, I'm unemployed, he says. I collect unemployment benefits from the government. I've been searching here, there and everywhere. His benefits dry up next month. But behold, Spain's first nuclear waste dump is coming to town, and with it up to 500 construction jobs.

For 30 years, spent uranium has been stored in cooling pools at eight reactors around the country, but they're filling up. Spain has even had to send some nuclear waste to France, to the tune of almost $80,000 a day - something Spain definitely cannot afford these days.

So, the plan now is to bury radioactive waste deep under abandoned barley fields in this village. Instead of cries of not in my backyard, everyone here is ecstatic. The bartender, Antonio Velda, explains.

ANTONIO VELDA: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: That moment, when they announced the nuclear waste would come here, it gave us all hope, he says. There are no jobs here anymore. There's hardly any fear of contamination. The bigger fear is of unemployment.

The nearly $1 billion dollar project breaks ground within months. And resumes are already piling up at city hall. The one frazzled clerk there tells me where to find the mayor: Walk down that dirt road, he says, hang a left, and ask for Jose in the metal workshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

FRAYER: Sure enough, here is the mayor at his day job in the family business with a blow torch.

MAYOR JOSE MARIA SAIZ: (Through translator) When they gave me the news that the nuclear facility was coming to Villar de Canas, imagine it, the joy.

FRAYER: Mayor Jose Maria Saiz grew up here and remembers when the village was full of people. But agriculture requires fewer bodies these days. And the construction bubble was short-lived.

SAIZ: (Through translator) When I was young, in the 1970s and '80s, there was a load of people here, with so many children in the local school. I've been mayor for 18 years. And in that time, I've seen the loss of the population. As mayor, I felt impotent to prevent my village from dying.

FRAYER: So he applied for the nuclear waste site two years ago and went door to door, answering questions about safety. Cooling pools no longer seem like a great idea after what happened at Fukushima in Japan. Here, radioactive material will be buried for 60 years. The mayor says he has no doubts about safety, and is fixated instead on the jobs that could transform his town.

SAIZ: (Through translator) Half the houses here are boarded up. I want all the houses opened. I want young married couples to move here and have children. To be able to work in your own village, for me, it's a source of pride.

FRAYER: That nuclear waste might be what brings children back. Well, the mayor gets the irony there.

SAIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: They've started calling it the buried savior, he says.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Villar de Canas, Spain.

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