Mayor Kevin Phillips is a walking, talking version of his city's welcome sign -- "Prepared for Your Business" -- as he watches a freight train rumble past his hardware store on rails that may decide the community's future.

The U.S. Energy Department has proposed making this little Nevada town a crossroads for highly radioactive nuclear waste being transported to a dump carved out of the rock underneath Yucca Mountain.

"I want to face reality," Phillips said. "It's going to happen. Here sitteth the Union Pacific Railroad. Here cometh the shipments."

Under the Energy Department's proposal, the government would build an $880 million, 319-mile rail spur that would branch off from the Union Pacific main line at Caliente and end at Yucca Mountain. Phillips hopes a transfer station could be built nearby where radioactive waste casks could be taken off rail cars and put onto trucks for the trip to the dump.

Caliente, population 1,184, is in a notch of the rugged Delamar Mountains, not far from the Utah state line. It is 275 miles to Salt Lake City and 150 miles to Las Vegas, but worlds away from the those two growing cities of the West.

Although the rest of Nevada experienced a 50 percent boom in jobs from 1993 to 2003, Caliente and surrounding Lincoln County reported a 33 percent decline in people working or looking for work.

A railroad to Yucca Mountain -- along with a rail-maintenance center in Caliente -- might stem the exodus out of town and bring 100 construction jobs and about 60 permanent jobs, according to the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

"I'm for jobs," Phillips, 53, said, "because I know this can be done safely."

The proposal, like the railroad tracks that run through town, has split the community.

Across the tracks from the town's hardware store, Dorothy Phillips, 81, the mayor's aunt, acknowledged jobs are scarce, but dismissed assurances that nuclear material can be handled without risk.

Her father died of leukemia in 1963, at age 67. He used to scrub dust from trains that passed by the nearby Nevada Test Site after mushroom-cloud nuclear explosions. The family received $50,000 in "downwinder" government benefits after he died, she said.

"My sister died of brain cancer," Phillips said, recalling other Caliente families who lost three, four or more members to cancer. "My brother, he was a brakeman on the trains. He died of cancer. I had cancer, but I survived."

Steve Rowe -- Caliente's fire chief and hospital board chairman -- said the town's 25 volunteer firefighters would probably be trained to handle a radiological mishap, and some might be hired full time. The 20-bed Grover C. Dils Medical Center would be expanded, he said, maybe doubled, with a special wing for radiation injuries.

"If this goes through, we would have to get more money," he said.

Lincoln County covers an area larger than the state of Vermont, with 98 percent of the land owned by the federal government. Vast tracts are leased for ranching and grazing. With most mines closed and many railroad jobs lost to automation, the biggest employers are schools and government.

Caliente, the county's only city, shows some signs of growth along the Union Pacific tracks and U.S. Highway 93, the two-lane road that doubles as Front Street. A billboard across from the neat, white-spired Mormon church marks the future site of an industrial park.

The Energy Department hopes to open the Yucca Mountain repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in 2010 and entomb 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel building up at reactors in 39 states. A department decision on transportation routes could be a couple of years away.

Polls show most Nevada residents oppose storing the nation's nuclear waste, and the state has six federal lawsuits pending against the project.

The rail route would loop north around the Test Site and the vast Nellis Air Force Base bombing range -- avoiding Las Vegas casinos, 130,000 hotel rooms and 1.6 million residents.

"Would we want to have a radiological accident? No. But people can be trained to handle it," the Caliente mayor said.

Dorothy Phillips said she will never be convinced.

"The mayor's my nephew," she said. "Even though I love him as a relative, I'm against him on this nuclear issue. He's shoving this down our throats."

"I think we have to go down fighting," she added, "or we're not true to our families and all we've lost."