On the banks of the one the longest rivers in North America sits the village of Galena, located 270 miles west of Fairbanks. One of the checkpoints along the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the community of approximately 600, like many villages throughout the state, is facing a mega-sized energy crisis. Among the village's proposed solutions? Burying a "nuclear battery" -- a super small, self-contained nuclear generator -- in the ground below.
For most Americans, a $5,000-monthly electric bill is nothing to celebrate. But the day Agnes Huntington received one, she danced for joy. She owns the local grocery store, where electric bills routinely rise above $6,000, and saving $1,000 in one month is a big deal.
"Electric bills are very high because of cost of fuel. A lot of people are having a hard time heating homes and keeping electricity on," said March Runner, the tribal administrator. "It's a problem up and down the river."
In remote Alaska communities where jobs are scarce and shipping drives costs up, rising fuel prices have a magnified effect. Founded at the site of several Athabascan fishing villages, Galena, like other communities along the river system, became a support hub for mining operations during the gold rush. When mineral mania waned, the U.S. Air Force came in, boosting employment and becoming a big consumer of electricity from the local power grid. But a few years ago, the Air Force pulled out, taking the local economy with it.
In a state of triage, Galena is working to make good use of the campus by expanding its school system, which the city hopes will become a sustainable economic base. The school concept is doing well - Iditarod rookie Michael Williams, Jr. is a graduate of the city's vocational boarding academy - but it needs to grow to be viable as a financial hub for the community.
"We are depending on the school. If that doesn't take hold we will be a lost community," said Galena Mayor Russ Sweetsir.
With no true economic center in Galena, diesel-powered electricity is taking an ever-growing economic toll on community members and the city alike.
"When the prices went up last time it just about wiped us out financially in the villages," said Galena Councilman Rand Rosencranz, who works as the chef at the local school.
Everyone is struggling to keep up, and the search is on for a better way.
Toshiba first peddled the idea of a nuclear power generator several years ago. The concept was simple: barge in the self-contained unit, which generates electricity from steam engines powered by heat from the nuclear reactor, drop it in the ground and provide low-cost power to Galena and beyond.
"The idea is that you can just set it there and leave it for 30 years. You don't really need an operator," said former city manager Marvin Yoder, who helped facilitate discussions on the project.
In theory, the nuclear reactor could substantially reduce villagers' electrical bills. At today's prices, the 20 cents per kilowatt hour projection made by Yoder and Toshiba would be a dramatic cut from the 56 cents per kilowatt hour locals currently pay.
But what sounds like a good idea to some isn't exactly catching on along the river system. The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed council has opposed the project from the start, and many skeptics fear the environmental impact of an accident or failure with the as-of-yet unproven technology.
"I think when all of your neighbors don't necessarily like the idea you have you need to step back and reevaluate," Rosencranz said.
For now, the nuclear project, which could top $100 million, is in limbo. Nuclear generators are closely regulated in the United States, and if approvals come through it will be years before any equipment would realistically make its way to the village. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn't expect Toshiba to apply for certification of the technology until later this year, which is a preliminary step to another regulatory process -- licensing. And before anything can actually get up and running a series of expensive environmental and air quality tests must be performed in Galena -- tests the city doesn't have the money to finance, Rosecranz said.
None of the super small reactors are in use anywhere in the world, although prototypes do exist, Yoder said. Toshiba had offered to pay for licensing and the main equipment, but Galena would need to build the infrastructure to house it and provide the staffing required to oversee it.
Galena Tribal Chief Chris Sommers is on the fence about a nuclear option. He likes the concept, but wants to ensure it's failsafe before seeing it advance. He's also convinced it's a distant solution compared to the nearer-term fixes Galena needs.
"I don't know if I'll even see it in my lifetime," he said.
However, like many of Alaska's rural communities, Galena residents are used to solving their own problems. If they're hungry, they don't have the luxury of zipping out to an all-night diner or store. They shop in bulk from larger cities so they don't have to pay the higher costs of the in-town grocery. They hunt for meat and fish, and they grow their own vegetables.
"If you have never lived out here in the Bush, you have no idea what it's like," Sommers said. "They think we just sit around and do nothing, but there is a lot to do here, especially if you like hunting, trapping and fishing. But if you are a TV person, you might as just as well stay in the city. It's not the place to be a homebody. If you miss the theater and restaurants you would have a hard time here."
It used to be Galena was a pretty inexpensive place to live, but the price of fuel is shifting the equation, Sommers said.
"I've never had a mortgage," he said. "I built my own home -- it doesn't have to be anything fancy, just efficient. I get all my meat and fish and potatoes off of the land. I get a few fruits and veggies from the local store, and we get a lot out of our garden. I never buy a steak or a fish."
Despite thriftiness and a lack of property taxes, fuel costs are high enough now that Sommers thinks life in Galena is more expensive for him than it is for his Anchorage- and Fairbanks-based friends.
Unfortunately, energy solutions aren't as simple as they may at first seem.
One way to help is to conserve energy use, but reducing the burden isn't as easy as using less electricity. In addition to demand from homes and businesses, the power plant must offer enough output at all times to power the airstrip and the city's emergency siren. Then, too, since the city makes money off of the power it sells, and has few other sources of revenue, it needs to ensure it has enough money from ratepayers to keep its government and services running, Rosencranz said.
Unable to shake the reality that fuel costs aren't likely to drop, Galena is taking advantage of the state's Renewable Energy Fund, which awards financial grants to renewable energy projects statewide. While money sought for an in-river power generator was denied, the city and the village have had some success recently obtaining funding for a wood-fired boiler and a waste heat greenhouse at the school.
Wood-fired boilers employ a type of energy generation known as biomass, and locals seem receptive to the idea. If supplies of nearby wood and willows can outlast demand, biomass could also be a way to provide a much needed economic boost.
"The biomass project would create jobs harvesting the trees, running the plant and keeping the system going," Runner said. "We are always looking at alternatives that will provide jobs or keep people employed with jobs. Anything we look at we look at as an opportunity to employ people and keep them in the village, which is their home."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com