Nuclear station workers packing byways, any place with food

Published 12:15 am Sunday, April 1, 2012

PORT GIBSON — Aside from its being the primary route to work, Grand Gulf Road has become the place to be when legions of workers at the nuclear plant these days decide it’s time to eat.

“Ah, you know it,” said Danny Jones, a contractor from Tuscaloosa, Ala., peeling his way through a mess of crawfish at A-Bear’s Restaurant & Catering Service’s roadside eatery on the access road. “It beats typical fast food every day. And they’re good people, too. Real laid back.”

The pop-up seafood and burger joint has become a hit with workers during Grand Gulf Nuclear Station’s unprecedented refueling outage and power-up — credited for a daily gridlock on the plant’s main access road and a boom in business for small stores and shops in Port Gibson and Claiborne County. It’s a gridlock most hope can carry them through what would otherwise be a humdrum spring and summer.

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“We came in right before the outage started,” said Eddie Boyd, a co-manager of A-Bear’s, which cut into the outage business with sacks of boiled and live crawfish, po-boys, burgers and ribs. “Man, they’re steady coming. Every day.”

Shelves at Family Dollar on U.S. 61 are picked clean of canned food and saltines as employees reset aisles to hold 500 new items while business stays brisk during the outage, assistant manager Jacqueline Bell said.

“Grand Gulf buys us out of so many different items — more food than anything else,” Bell said. “Vienna sausage, crackers, the food they can put in microwaves, pizzas,” Bell said. “Then some of them buy air mattresses, sheets, pillows, forks, plastic cups.”

Hotel occupancy has spiked dramatically during the outage, notably in Vicksburg where hotels and motels reported being 75 percent full in February. Similar crowds are found at RV parks between Vicksburg and Natchez and west into northeast Louisiana.

Near Port Gibson, one lot is left among 49 spaces for RVs at Gray’s Boutique & RV Park, said owner Janice Gray, who also runs the adjacent convenience store that has hummed with business that it had not seen since her late husband, James, converted it from a horse barn in 2010.

“They get milk, bread and snacks,” Gray said. “They’re keeping us busy in the store.”

While workers stock up, Claiborne County’s 12 deputies have been stretched to the limit with traffic concerns.

“It’s real hectic right now, with all these thousands of workers here,” Sheriff Marvin Lucas said, counting the influx of commuters to the plant as the first challenge of his young tenure. Lucas, a former parks and recreation department employee, was elected in November.

For six hours at a time since the outage began, three deputies — supplemented by an occasional Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol unit — have parked in clearings on the two-lane Grand Gulf Road and kept an eye on the traffic flow.

“We’ve got 5,000 workers in there, and most of them aren’t from here,” said Deputy Adam Wells. “We just try to get them to watch and focus on the road.”

Lucas is quick to remind that it’s all they can do. He says accidents on the access road have been few, only two “fender-benders.”

“You know we don’t have radar, so once (deputies) get stretched out down there, it’s kind of hard to tell how fast they’re going,” Lucas said.

Whether they speed, fly, or walk is all good to Gray.

“I hear they’re supposed to stay until November,” she said. “I won’t be mad at them for staying longer.”

About 4,500 workers on various shifts were on the job this past week, Entergy Nuclear spokeswoman Suzanne Anderson said.

Entergy has contracted with 76 companies and 15 subcontractors to provide up to 5,000 workers to refuel the boiling-water reactor and increase its generating capacity by 13 percent.

Many are on contracts that last until about June. Totals of workers and how long they’ll stay will depend on work requests from Entergy.