SAVANNAH RIVER SITE -- Standing 75-feet tall, "Hector" is a test nuclear reactor that has sat idle since the early 1960s, a relic of the Cold War days when South Carolinians helped the country build its atomic weapons arsenal.

At its peak in 1989, 25,000 men and women worked at the bomb plant, secluded on 310 square miles among pine trees and a maze of roads named "1" and "2" and obscure work zones with names like "Area M" and "Area D."

Like the rusted-dome reactor, the people in the rural communities that surround the Savannah River Site have been left behind as the unemployment rate shot up to higher than 20 percent during the past two years.

The number of workers at the nuclear site dropped to 10,000, and the unemployment lines grew every time another textile mill in this part of the state moved operations out of the country or folded altogether.

Now, this old, sprawling nuclear arsenal pulses again with the pounding of workers dismantling and cleaning up the old bomb plant and preparing it for its next mission as part of one of the nation's largest stimulus projects.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has given this corner of South Carolina a temporary reprieve with the creation of 3,356 direct jobs and a yet unknown economic reach in Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn -- the person most responsible for steering $1.6 billion from the stimulus package to the site -- said the jobs fill the intent of the Recovery Act because they are "targeted, timely and temporary."

And when the jobs go away in the next 17 months, the South Carolina Democrat said the workers will be trained and ready for the next opportunity that may come their way as the state pushes forward with efforts to revive nuclear power as a key way to wean the nation off foreign oil and greenhouse-gas-producing coal.

New, marketable skills

Michael Gunnells considers himself one of the lucky ones.

"I thank the good Lord every day for this job," Gunnells said, in a thick Southern accent.

The 51-year-old from Clearwater said he was devastated when he was laid off in early 2006 as Avondale Mills in Graniteville shut down after 161 years in operation, capping a history that stretched to before the Civil War.

About 1,600 people lost their jobs when Avondale shuttered the plant.

Gunnells had worked in the textile mill for 30 years. He was out of work for about two years and wondered if he could ever earn another paycheck.

Now, Gunnells is on the team that will dismantle "Hector" and pour concrete into its base to seal in the radioactive threat.

Across the site in Area E, Billy Wooldridge and Randy Wells were hired for another Recovery Act project, digging up enormous concrete culverts filled with 55-gallon drums that hold tools and plastic suits and other debris contaminated by deadly plutonium.

The drums, buried under grassy mounds since the 1960s and 1970s, will be sorted and shipped to Carlsbad, N.M., for permanent storage.

Wooldridge, of Barnwell, said he couldn't find work anywhere closer than Columbia before the stimulus jobs opened up. He was laid off without warning in January 2009 after 18 years with the vending machine manufacturer Dixie-Narco in Williston.

He said he knows a permanent job at the site is not guaranteed, but when the work ends he will have new skills to market himself.

"I'm grateful to come to work and see that sign -- 3,000 jobs created by the stimulus -- and I am grateful to be one of the 3,000," Wooldridge, 51, said. Billboards are scattered on the highways near the old plant that promote the impact of the stimulus dollars.

Wells, a 33-year-old who has lived most of his life in Blackville, said he was selling insurance door-to-door but couldn't make enough money to support his family.

"I don't get into politics and I didn't like Obama, but he got me a check. I guess I like him now," Wells said, turning to Wooldridge and letting out a laugh.

The divisiveness that surrounds the federal stimulus package in political circles about 70 miles away in the Statehouse is not outwardly evident on the Savannah River Site.

Monty Hyde, for example, is a retired Army veteran from North Augusta and a lifelong Republican hired for a Recovery Act project. He said he doesn't think the national debt created by the stimulus spending is in the long-term good of the country, but he said it sure is helping a lot of folks now.

Garry Flowers, president and chief executive officer of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the site's management and operations contractor, said the Recovery Act has brought good-paying jobs to the region, given the workers and their families buying power and boosted the bottom line for businesses.

About 70 percent of the stimulus workers are local. The rest are from other parts of the country.

"Whether you agree with it or not, the whole concept of the stimulus package, the reality of it is that you've created over 3,000 jobs and put I don't know how much money into the communities," Flowers said.

" ... You're right in the eye of a very positive storm. This is ground zero for people who have really benefited from the stimulus dollars."

'Delayed recession'

Recovery Act workers are putting in resumes and hoping to land one of the 10,000 permanent jobs with the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors on the site. Meanwhile, community leaders and politicians are trying to position this part of South Carolina to be ready to jump on future opportunities in the field of nuclear energy.

J. David Jameson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization, said a survey commissioned by the chamber showed that over the next decade 10,000 nuclear-related jobs will be created in an 80-mile radius.

The projected jobs include electrical engineers, apprentices, professionals and construction workers for two nuclear plants planned on the South Carolina-Georgia border, a couple of the nation's first nuclear reactors to be built in 30 years.

Additionally, the chamber is working with superintendents of eight nearby school districts to create programs that will begin as early as the eighth grade to prepare students for careers in the nuclear energy field.

But Jameson said the community is preparing for other 21st-century opportunities and not pinning all their hopes on the revival of nuclear energy.

"I do not think it is a solo silver bullet," Jameson said. "It is one of many."

The Recovery Act is now in its 13th of 30 months, and Jameson said business and community leaders are discussing how to address hardships that will come when the money runs out and the jobs go away.

"We don't want to have a delayed recession," he said.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, voted against the stimulus package, but he said he has worked with Clyburn to help set the stage for the state to benefit from nuclear jobs in the future. He said South Carolina has a role in the country's future energy independence.

"As I talk about energy independence and get to know all the oil and gas CEOs and all the nuclear CEOs and the chamber of commerce types, that has a benefit in helping to recruit industry," Graham said.

Clyburn said the stimulus jobs are an investment as the site transitions from what it was into what it can be. One part of its future is technology that allows workers to turn surplus weapons material into mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, that can be used to power commercial nuclear reactors.

The federal government provided $754 million in the current budget for MOX, and Clyburn requested $891 million in the 2011 federal budget for the Savannah River Site program.

Clyburn said he doesn't know what will happen in the lives of the more than 3,000 people earning paychecks from the stimulus package when the money is gone. But he said not providing the work now because the future is uncertain is like arguing against a college education because it does not guarantee a job after graduation.

"What we're trying to do is prepare these communities for what may come their way in the future. If it doesn't come their way, fine. But will it come their way if we don't do it?"

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.