Patrick and Ginger Bjerke came here from their native New York nearly three years ago, she says, "because this was the land of opportunity."
Now, her husband is in California where there is work, she is trying to sell or rent their house at a reduced price, and the land where the future once beamed so brightly is, in her words, "the pits."
The Bjerkes' plight is almost epidemic here in the sprawling subdivisions of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, southeastern Washington's "Tri-Cities." Bjerke, a welder, is one of 9,100 skilled craftsmen and others laid off at two huge nuclear power plants that, until recently, were rising in the nearby desert.
For years, work on these and a third plant being built here by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) had fueled this desert area's economy, making it the seventh fastest-growing region in the country. In the 1970s, the population nearly doubled to around 100,000--so rapid a rise that Kennewick city manager Joe Painter jokingly threatened to put a digital counter on his community's "welcome" sign.
With nuclear power plant construction costing $13.4 billion by latest estimates, the Tri-cities area had seemed to guarantee years of steady employment--and residence--to traveling tradesmen with families to raise and paychecks to spend in a boomtown economy. They were building what the promoters proclaimed to be the largest municipal power project in the country.
The bottom fell out this spring. Despite three huge rallies mounted by the passionately pro-nuclear citizenry within 10 days, WPPSS (known as "Whoops" despite public relations efforts to call it "the supply system") first canceled construction on its nuclear power plant No. 4 and deferred for at least a year further work on its plant No. 1.
Both are located on land leased from the U.S. Department of Energy a dozen or so miles north of here. WPPSS decided to complete work on plant No. 2, also located here, and to abandon No. 5 and keep going on No. 3, both at the western end of the state.
The reasons for the decision were complex--a combination of financing problems; labor-management disputes; inflation; cost overruns; a surplus of power over demand, and, some say, politics. Whatever the causes, the effects have been immediate and severe, creating a dramatic downturn in the fortune of the Tri-cities.
Craft workers like Bjerke, often grossing more than $700 a week, were the consumers largely credited with boosting the region's prosperity; without their spending, the balloon has deflated.
This spring, the only business booming here was the moving business. The U-Haul renters had to bring in trailers from as far away as Montana to meet the demand. "Moving? Reserve Now! Beat the Rush!" urges the sign outside the Kennewick office.
Ginger Bjerke, a slender, blonde woman with two sons, would like to join the exodus but not until her house is off the market, sold or leased. It was sold once, to another newcomer who, as personnel manager in charge of laying off other workers at an area lumber company, soon became skittish about his own job security. Forfeiting $1,000 earnest money, he backed out of the deal.
The sales price has been lowered, from $103,000 to $99,999, and so has the rent, from $650 to $595, and still there are no takers in a market where for-sale signs appear on almost every block, sometimes on untended houses, and the vacancy rate for rentals hovers around 30 percent.
In Haas Plaza, a modest two-story center at Kennewick's west end, half the space is vacant and the steak house is almost empty at lunch time. Not long ago, according to Realtor of the Year Joe Larson, "This area was booming. Rotten location, but people would put up anything. Now, they're really starting to hurt because of it."
With the halt of work on the two large reactors, the unemployment rate had jumped in May to 15.8 percent and was expected to increase sharply over the summer as more construction workers lost their jobs and half a dozen other companies laid off employes. For every six construction workers laid off here, state officials estimate, one retail worker is unemployed.
In May and June alone, the telephone system suffered a net loss of 1,154 residential customers. For 1982 and 1983, an unprecedented loss of 8,000 lines, or 20 percent of all hookups, is projected. "This town is leaking people," said Dean Schau, an economic analyst with the state employment service here.
Before World War II, there were few residents anywhere in this arid area more than 200 miles east of Portland and Seattle and a like distance south of Spokane. Forty years ago the federal government acquired several hundred square miles of farmland and desert near the small community of Hanford, evacuated the natives and brought in tens of thousands of construction workers.
Their top secret task--of which most knew little or nothing--was to build a nuclear reactor to manufacture the plutonium that would be dropped on Nagasaki to end the war.
The government furnished the housing, first in makeshift camps on the windswept desert where clouds of dust billowed in the springtime, and then in more permanent configurations and styles directly south of the military reservation in Richland.
From then on, the region's economy was inextricably linked to the federal nuclear presence. Symbolic of that link are several businesses with names like "Bomber Car Wash" and, on a bowling alley, "Atomic Lanes."
The Tri-cities, as the towns at the juncture of the Columbia and Yakima Rivers came to be called, have had their ups and downs as government programs have expanded and contracted. Today, the WPPSS projects share the vast Hanford site--one half the size of Rhode Island--with an array of federally funded activities that still employ 11,500 but which also are shrinking and shifting to reflect Reagan administration cutbacks and priorities.
The last major challenge to the Tri-cities' expansive self image and economic well-being came during the 1960s, when the government decided to close all but one of its nine reactors.
Local movers and shakers formed the Tri-city Nuclear Industrial Council. They succeeded in reversing the federal decision and replacing the single Hanford contractor that had steadfastly remained aloof from the community with several different firms that pledged their involvement.
This widely hailed "diversification and segmentation" brought in companies that invested in nonnuclear enterprises, including a meat packing plant and a motel-convention center. But despite such efforts and continuing claims of a broad-based economy independent of Hanford, as much as 75 percent of the region's primary payroll still stems from the Department of Energy and WPPSS activities.
Glenn Lee, editor emeritus of the Tri-City Herald and secretary of the Nuclear Council, is pinning his hopes for an economic renaissance on the government's gearing up to build more weapons-grade plutonium, in line with current defense needs, and on other federal programs to handle atomic waste.
"We can bury nuclear fuels for the entire nation," said Lee, a serious man with a crewcut and bushy eyebrows. "Hanford has a great future, and it's all in place. You got the Columbia River running by our door, isolation and public acceptance of nuclear power. The people here have lived with it since 1942. They're not afraid of it."
At the Chamber of Commerce and at the state employment office, they speak optimistically on the long term. "Hang tough Tri-Cities. Things will get better," declares the Budweiser billboard in Pasco. But the short run looks decidedly grim.
"I am sorry, these numbers just don't look very good lately," said Schau, the economic analyst at the state unemployment office. "What do you tell these people? Good luck? Head-of-household males don't go through unemployment very well. Traditionally, they identify with their job, not their environment. Take away their job, you take away their identity."
A volunteer at "CONTACT," a nondenominational church-sponsored telephone listening service, reports a number of suicidal calls "from people that aren't working." Beth Allred, a broker associate of Joe Larson, says she lost a sale when a potential customer lost his engineering job and tried to kill himself. Divorces have been frequent, many marriages falling victim to months of separation as husbands left to find work.
On the Hanford Reservation, there is an eerie ghost-town quality to the 2,051-acre WPPSS nuclear plant site.Although work continues on one of the three reactors, most of the 800 office trailers are quiet, acres of unused parts and equipment await buyers and only the pigeons break the silence inside the unfinished reactor buildings.
Ralph Rockwood, 60, the WPPSS construction manager at Hanford, began his career working on Sea Wolf, a nuclear submarine the government abandoned in favor of Polaris, and he will cap his career winding down a public power project similarly scuttled.
"It's an emotional thing," he says, touring the deserted site. "I would have liked to have seen both (power plants) on line. It's an awful waste of money. One of the greatest losses is not money but loss of talent."
"In construction, the job always peters out," said Dave Sittman, an electrician let go by WPPSS three months ago. "What got to all of us out there was the job was still there. . . . When we walked out of there, all of us, we left the job undone."
There was a time, Sittman said, "when work petered out, you got in a camper and went on the road to find work, when gas was 50 cents a gallon. . . . I have a lot of friends who've gone looking for work all over the country and have come back because there's nothing out there. I don't have any place to run to. I'm at a crossroads and wondering what to do."