News and Views

News

Voices

Arts

Life and Work

Milestones

Submit your news

Submit commentary

Support us

Become a member

Advertising

Print advertising

Web advertising

About us

Contact us

Privacy Policy

The Commons
Voices / Interview

The path toward a post-nuclear economy

How can the region best plan to absorb the loss of Vermont Yankee?

What follows is an edited version of  The Commons’ first Voices Live! forum — “The Path Toward a Post-Nuclear Economy: Life After Vermont Yankee — What’s Next?” — which took place in Brattleboro last week. The discussion assembled several guests who spoke about the recent news about Entergy’s intent to close Vermont Yankee in 2014, after its current fuel cycle, with a specific focus on the regional economy. We intend for this to be the first of many such discussions, not only about VY but about other pressing regional issues.

Speaking at the Hooker-Dunham Theater were:

Chris Campany, executive director of the Brattleboro-based Windham Regional Commission, a regional planning agency that serves 27 towns in southeastern Vermont.

Pat Moulten Powden, Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) representative and director of workforce development — and soon-to-be executive director — of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, a non-profit, regional economic development corporation.

Raymond Shadis, an active nuclear safety advocate for more than 30 years, who served seven years on Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company’s Community Advisory Panel on Decommissioning. He is a technical consultant for the antinuclear New England Coalition.

John R. Mullin, a professor in the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, associate director of the Center for Economic Development, and former dean of the graduate school. He was a co-author of the 1997 paper “The Closing of the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant: The Impact on a New England Community.”

Mike Hebert,  vice-president of Green Mountain Billing Service, Inc., who has represented the Windham-1 district (Vernon and Guilford) in the Vermont State House of Representatives since 2010.

Olga Peters, the senior reporter for The Commons.

Commons Deputy Editor Randolph T. Holhut moderated the forum, which was orchestrated by Commons contributor Leah McGrath Goodman and her associate, Morgan Milazzo. Our thanks to them, to the countless people who helped organize this event, to the panelists, and to the 75 or so people who attended.

We have condensed the 1½-hour discussion in the spirit of making the spoken word translate to the written word and to convey the most information to our readers while preserving the flavor and spirit of the evening; it will be broadcast on BCTV (bctv.org) as well as streamed on its website. You can access the full transcript at commonsnews.org/transcript_vlive01/.

Originally published in The Commons issue #222 (Wednesday, September 25, 2013).



Randolph T. Holhut, moderator: A recent front-page story in The Boston Globe covered Maine Yankee and their host town, Wiscasset, Maine, and how it’s faring in the two decades or so since the plant closed. Ray Shadis, you lived through it. Here’s your chance to tell us what the Globe got wrong.

Raymond Shadis: The story hit about three areas: a decline in business activity, tax increases and, I suppose, an overall fall in morale in the town.

Maine Yankee decided to go into decommissioning in August of 1997, so if they haven’t recovered yet, it’s been a long time, and that’s pretty serious business. The article claims that taxes increased tenfold, and that’s approximately correct. When Maine Yankee was operating, it provided about 95 percent of the town’s tax revenue. So homes that were being taxed $200 a year are now being taxed $2,000. And that’s big.

But if you look at the region, you find that the tax rate in Wiscasset went from the bottom quartile for comparable taxes in the region to somewhere a little less than the 50-percent mark.

I live just across the river; our taxes are quite high, and a lot of folks in the area can’t help but smirk a little and say, “This is what it’s like when you don’t have a tax milk cow.”

The Globe really didn’t quantify the economic impact. It isn’t as bleak a picture as The Boston Globe claimed. It’s more like the Boston Herald.

Michael Hebert: There’s a great difference between our situation and that in Maine. One being we’ve already seen a tenfold increase in our tax on the education side because of Act 60.

Also, it was not a 14-year-early closure. We had lead time. And I must say, I’m very thankful for folks like Erna Puffer, who negotiated many of the Yankee contracts. At her insistence, the town did create capital funds and reserves, and for a number of years, we maintained them so we would look to have a stable tax base for about a decade after the inevitable time when VY would close.

When Act 60 came into play, for all intents and purposes, Entergy came off our Grand List. Act 60 changed that somewhat on the school side; all our reserve funds are depleted. We have very minor reserves for building and maintenance, and that sort of thing; there’s still a little bit on the town side.

It will not be pleasant, but it is not a shocker. And we’re hoping that many of the folks who reside in Vernon now who are senior employees at the plant very well may stay in town as a retirement home.

I think the main thing for us in Vernon is to diminish the panic as much as possible. We don’t want our real estate values to go into free fall.

John Mullin: I think the big difference is that Vernon’s realizing that it’s not alone. I don’t think in the case of Yankee Rowe that the region was particularly prepared. And above all, people didn’t realize that this is not just a local problem, it’s a national, federal, problem.

The other thing is the sense of isolation they had at Yankee Rowe is quite different than what they have at Vernon; Vernon is part of not quite a metropolitan area, but it is indeed part of a lot of clustered communities.

Above all, if you take a look not only at the closing of the nuclear power plant, the closing of military bases and many hospitals, there’s a whole context of lessons learned, about how to handle these things that wasn’t there 20 years ago.

Holhut: This is the ultimate plant closing problem for an organization like BDCC. What are the strengths of this region compared to other regions that might make this transition not quite so harsh as it’s been for other places?

Pat Moulton Powden: Well, this is the ultimate plant closing, and Brattleboro and Windham County have been through them before. And we have to look at continuing to diversify our economic base, continuing to look at entrepreneurial opportunities, continue to help our existing businesses to grow, and we have a number of them that are growing. And I think this is one of the things that does differentiate this region.

We are not isolated in this neck of the woods; we’re close to New Hampshire, we’re close to Massachusetts, we share the economy of not just the Vermont region but those two states; we’re close to Hartford, we’re close to Springfield, Mass., we’re close to Boston. Those are some plusses.

Broadband and the other technology being deployed literally every day in this neck of the woods is a huge asset that wasn’t there at the time of a Rowe closing or possibly even Wiscasset.

We also have a very robust existing business community. And a very robust tourism economy, with major ski areas in this neck of the woods, and resources and assets that that can leverage for us.

A whole lot of people are coming up here skiing or hiking every weekend, and they are entrepreneurs themselves, they are potential investors, they are potential young people who may wish to move here and take these jobs.

Olga Peters: Windham County has some of the lowest wages in Vermont and in New England, compared to the average give-or-take salary at Vermont Yankee, about $100,000, so it is a huge gap between a lot of the wages being earned at VY versus a lot of the jobs anyone could get in this area. And if you move just over the state border, you could very easily up your income by thousands.

Vermont Yankee closing might not cause any new economic problems, but it’s going to definitely exacerbate problems that we already have.

In this region, we also have a number of towns with what I call “monoeconomies.” So Vernon’s economy is set up around Vermont Yankee. Wilmington and Dover, their economy is set up a lot around Mount Snow. And it is very hard for such an economy to absorb the changes.

John Mullin: There are two ways, in the absolute sense, of thinking about the economy: regions or places that make things, and regions that go out and think of things. Making and thinking are two different things.

It’s up to you how you choose. If, for example, the Brattleboro Retreat expands, you’re going to get one set of jobs, some high-paying, but many less-high-paying. If you encourage manufacturing, the multiplier will be much higher.

Changing a culture is very, very difficult. If you’re talking about Northampton and Amherst, where I’m from, we are comforting, we are nurturing, we don’t like to make things. We don’t have a strong industrial base, and we’re very happy with that.

Powden: We make a lot of things here, and we want to make more things here. We’ve also identified that we’ve had a large percentage of the population in this region that are non-wage-earners, either retirees or living on transfer payments. We need to get more people connected to the economy.

We also need to have a higher skill level. We have a lot of employers here with good jobs who cannot find the talent. We have a lot of talent that do not have the skills, so we must connect those dots.

And I think a lot of the wage disparity is because there are a lot of thinkers down in Northampton. And we want to be the makers as well as the thinkers through our colleges. So these are all elements that are going to come together and slowly raise those wages for our region. But we need to do it faster, clearly.

Holhut: And then there’s the 800-pound elephant in the room: when the plant closes, which direction’s it going to go? The option of deferring decommissioning for decades, which the NRC calls SAFSTOR? Or the more-immediate decommissioning model, DECON?

Campany: Well, DECON certainly represents the softer landing. Entergy estimates that within, I think, nine to 12 months of closing, they’ll drop from approximately 620 employees to about 250.

If you go to the immediate decommissioning option [DECON], which will take five to seven years, the employment levels during that phase will ramp back up to 300.

Now, if you go straight on into SAFSTOR, you’re looking at about 50 to 60 people working at the site, mainly security.

The preferred industry method is immediate decommissioning, because, in part, you’re able to retain those people who know that plant. Under SAFSTOR, you lose those employees.

And so, our suggestion is that DECON is in the best interest of the region because it would represent a softer landing, fiscally, economically, real-estate-wise — better in terms of virtually all the different impacts that have been discussed.

Of course, with Yankee, Entergy plans to do the opposite, SAFSTOR. The Windham Regional Commission has never said if the plant should stay open or if it should close, but we are trying to ask the Public Service Board whether, based on the information that’s been provided to us, immediate decommissioning is the better option.

Shadis: The entire question of which method of decommissioning, and issues around economic recovery, and all of the impacts that come with the closing, are too big not to be made in concert with all of the interested parties.

Everyone is very interested in a timely, quality decommissioning, but we’ve run into a few problems when it comes to defining what “timely” is. And what “quality” is.

To what standard will this plant be cleaned up? Connecticut Yankee, Maine Yankee, and Yankee Rowe were all cleaned up to a radiological cleanup standard 2½ times stricter than what the federal government allows. Do Vermont residents, the Vermont environment, deserve less?

There are no enemies here. There are opponents. You can sit down at a table, you can break bread with your opponents and discuss what concerns you have in common.

I think that choosing the SAFSTOR option with the idea that Entergy is going to make a lot of money over 60 years on these investment funds is another bad business decision. And I can’t wait to have the opportunity to talk to them about that.

Holhut: How do you think Entergy can improve communications with the town and with the region? Because a lot of this is going to depend on a good two-way dialogue with Entergy and the towns and the region and the state and the feds.

Shadis: I represent the opposition in terms of Entergy’s continued operation, and I’ve never had a problem sitting down and negotiating with them. During the breaks in the Public Service Board hearings, we would talk shop. And I think the conversation really has to be at that level.

There’s a certain mutual respect that needs to be developed and then the identification of common interests. I think the burden is not Entergy’s. I think largely the burden is with the affected population.

Hebert: I think what may have contaminated the environment, so to speak, is that rather than negotiating, for a number of years, we’ve been litigating.

My concern here is whether it’s DECON or SAFSTOR, it needs to be a negotiated item. My concern is that we’re going to come to loggerheads with the state and Entergy, and we’re going to be in court again to decide which way we’re going to go. I would much prefer all parties sitting down to discuss our common goals and common needs.

One of my greater concerns is the failure of the federal government to have a facility to take the waste from the plant. You’re going to have to have a perimeter fence, you’re going to have to have a security force. As long as dry cask storage is there, the use of that land will be limited.

Powden: We’ve already started a dialogue with the local management of Entergy around concerns about workforce and how we assess what kind of talent we have there: credentials, education, security clearances, etc. We want to keep that dialogue open and basically say, “What’s past is past. We now need to talk about the future and how we’re going to move forward together.”

Campany: Under the NRC rules, the plant has the ability to decide how it’s going to close. And so what everybody says here is right: there needs to be an open conversation, between the community and Entergy, and hopefully have a meeting of the minds about what is in all of our community’s best interest.

Five reactors have either closed or have announced they are going to close: two in San Onofre, Kewaunee in Wisconsin, Duke Energy and Crystal River, and Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee. And there are expected to be a number of other plants of this older generation closing. I suspect that when the rules were drafted, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was thinking a plant would close periodically. But now, we’re going to be looking a great number closing because of the natural-gas prices putting them at an economic disadvantage.

I don’t know when the NRC wrote the rules that they were anticipating a slew of plants closing and possibly going into SAFSTOR for 60 to 80 years as decommissioning funds grow (which makes these corporations look more cash-positive and leaves smaller subsidiaries holding the bag for eventual decommissioning of the plant), and the operators themselves actually owning their own decommissioning companies.

So does this become a discussion about what’s in the best interest of the host community where the plants are, or does it become more of a discussion about what’s in the best interest of the corporate finances to cycle the money back into the parent corporation?

Without even getting into health, safety, and welfare issues, we need a national policy discussion about what’s in the best interest of the local community for redevelopment of what are often very valuable industrial properties.

Once the plant comes up with a plan, you have a couple of public hearings — that’s all they’re required to do. And hopefully, Entergy will recognize the need to have that larger conversation. Because what they decide to do here is probably what they’re going to decide to do over at Indian Point.

Harvey Schaktman, audience member: What I’m hearing is you’re assuming that there’s a process of negotiation that will take place, as if the regulations that exist now allow a community to have something to say about what the corporation’s going to do or say.

Hebert: You’re certainly correct that they have the option. But it’s up to us to take the steps to approach them and say, “This is what’s in the best interests of our community.” And the folks in control of the VY plant here have already stated that they want to go out with their heads held high, in a good and proper fashion.

So we’re going to call them on that, and say, “This is what we need to have happen.”

We don’t have a lot of power, but what we will rely heavily on is our past relationship and their desire to retain somewhat of a positive exit.

Schactman: This is also a corporation that has fought the state of Vermont time and time again and lied under oath. You’re very optimistic, and I know it’s going to be good to go in with a positive attitude, but I think historically, we see a different kind of behavior from this corporation.

Hebert: It’s time to move forward in a positive fashion, and you may believe they lied, you may believe they’ve been dishonest. It’s a new day, and we need to take the most optimistic position possible.

And we will hold them to the standards that they said they are going to leave with and apply whatever pressure we can, because the reputation they leave with here will carry into their other plants throughout the fleet. And if they leave here with a big black eye, it won’t bode well for them in other communities.

So we do have, if nothing else, a PR lever. But legally, we don’t have a lot to stand on.

Shadis: On the matter of the how do you bring the company to the table, and get that dialogue going? I would just say: litigation.

I love it.

Well, here’s why. Everyone’s under oath. Every positive offering needs to be backed with evidence. The company itself is open as it’s never open in any other ordinary public venue because of discovery, where you can look at the documents and say, “Yes, what are your calculations for how the plant is going to be maintained over these many years?”

And litigation is the perfect venue for sitting down and talking turkey about stuff. A little coercive factor that’s there — it’s important.

When the concept of federal preemption over nuclear regulation was born, the states said, “What about our rights in the representative process?” And the tradeoff was a whole series of hearing rights.

Every radiological aspect has to be in the license termination plan. Each of these steps is an opportunity for citizenry to intervene. It’s not litigation we go seeking, but it is litigation that is brought to us.

The plan itself is an invitation to litigation. At Maine Yankee, when we citizens attempted to intervene, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff opposed it and they came up with a raft of objections. Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company filed on our side and said, “You ought to let them intervene. You’re being a little overly legalistic.”

In the case of Vermont Yankee, it’s not our choice, particularly, to seek litigation before the Vermont Public Service Board, but Entergy said, “Give us a permanent Certificate of Public Good for one year instead of 20, unconditionally.” We think it needs to be conditioned on a prompt, quality decommissioning.

Campany: The reason we know the intent of Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee for when they close is because of the information they’ve provided through the dockets. Other states don’t have that.

Now, you’ll also have the decommissioning plan they submit to the NRC, the nuclear fuel plans, but it’s through the docket and the state licensing process that we can actually ask their witnesses, “Tell us what you’re going to do.” And so there’s real value in that.

The reason I was shaking my head over discussion of continued litigation is, we can’t. We’ve been doing this with no resources whatsoever. It’s a hell of a way to run a regulatory process. We basically have to rely on volunteers to participate in the region’s interest.

Leo Schiff, audience member: I’m not convinced this civil war is really over. It would be nice if it were, but I think that the interests of the community and the corporation really diverge in terms of SAFSTOR versus DECON. Is there any panelist here — and I look to you the most, Mike — who will not fight vigorously for the DECON option?

Hebert: Well, first of all, I would have to ascertain what Vernon wants to do as a community. Certainly, there are different options to be taken; I think we need to study that situation a little more. But the bottom line is, do I really want a situation where it’s my great-grandchildren that are decommissioning the plant?

But at this point in time, I can’t say what is the better option from our end. I do want what will be in the best interest of Vernon, and if it’s decided that it’s DECON, then that’s the way I will go. I’m the representative for Guilford and Vernon, and if that is the best outcome for Vernon, that’s what I’ll represent.

Schiff: Even if it doesn’t dovetail with the interests of the rest of the region?

Hebert: Well, I’m not sure if it would or wouldn’t. As we’ve said, Vernon is not an island. I mean the broad community. So yes, Vernon’s got to have some goals and objectives, but also we need to be looking at what is the total best interest of the aggregate.

Mullin: The first question is deciding what is the appropriate level of decision-making. Is it the region? Is it the state? Is it Massachusetts, where 300 workers from VY live and have a stake in this issue?

This is something that has to be done very, very carefully, in a very transparent way, in a way where those people impacted really have a say.

If I were in charge, the very first thing I would do is I would call a national conference here in Brattleboro of every nuke across the United States. Those that have closed, those that are closing, those who are operating. Define the best practices of decommissioning, the weakest parts of it.

Rather than having these single people going out and saying, “I’ve gone to Maine, this is what happens,” “I’ve gone to Connecticut,” it’s time to get a playbook here that determines the art of the possible.

The Office of Economic Adjustment assists communities during military base closings. Why can’t the Office of Economic Adjustment look at nukes? The framework’s all there.

The thing of it is, it shouldn’t be the burden of Vernon, the county, or the state. You all have a consequence, but so does the country.

Powden: I would just remind folks that SeVEDS did have a post-VY committee that filed a report and went on the record in support of full dismantling and decommissioning of the plant.

We need the kind of conference that John is suggesting. Five nuclear power plants in the process of closing is a lot, and again, I’ll go with the analogy of Tropical Storm Irene. FEMA learned a lot when they came to Vermont, and they’ve changed some of their practices. We have organizations like the Small Business Development Center here in Vermont that wrote a pre- and post-disaster planning book where none existed before — and that book is now being used heavily after the recent floods in Colorado, and in New Jersey and New York post Hurricane Sandy. So we have a similar opportunity to lead in this area.

We have an opportunity to have a national conversation about the fact that this is a base closing, only we don’t have the asset of the buildings and the land that any kind of military base leaves behind, which gives us an even greater challenge.

Shadis: I was really pleased to hear Mike say he had concerns about his grandchildren having to take care of decommissioning. It’s an issue that we’re bringing before the Vermont Public Service Board: You’ve got people being born 60 years down the road who have never seen a kilowatt out of this plant, nor a tax penny. And they are going to be asked at that point to assume the burden of securing this waste.

Holhut: So what have we learned tonight?

Campany: It’s good Entergy is talking to BDCC and SeVEDS about the jobs side; it’s absolutely essential they’re talking to Vernon, but we’ve got other, larger regional plan issues, and, hopefully, there will be a better flow of communication.

I have reached out to my counterparts in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. We are inherently related; you just look at the license plates going down Main Street. So hopefully, this will be an opportunity to talk beyond the traditional boundaries of state lines and start working together.

Powden: We have been working on an economic development strategy for a while. We’re nearing its completion; that process has been delayed a bit to incorporate the known data for VY closing and what strategies we might want to be looking at around workforce. We recognize that the urgency has been ratcheted up big-time. It’s going to take time.

We will continue the dialogue about how we recover our regional economy and how can we keep as many of the people, the good people, who are employed at VY here gainfully employed and pursuing the quality of life that they want.

Mullin: Sometimes I worry about Vermont, because you look inward so much. This is one time you need to look national and outward. I applaud very much the work that Pat and the CEDS team has done.

This outreach has to be done in a way that is understood. And I worry about that all the time. I’m president of the AAL — the Anti Acronym League. I hear these acronyms floating back and forth up here, and I say, “Good gosh, I’m supposed to know these things.”

Shadis: In 2001, five years into decommissioning the Maine Yankee, we undertook a little economic study of the consequences, looking particularly at every economic indicator we could find for the tri-county area around Maine Yankee. And what we found is once we got outside the host town, over that five-year stretch, we could really find no economic bumps.

It may be that one contributing factor was that the workers came from a radius of about 50 miles commuting to the plant, similar to your situation here, where you have workers coming from the tri-state area.

The state’s economist at the time, Charles Colgan, found that there were very, very small economic impacts outside the immediate area. He said a large part of that had to do with the fact that nuclear power plants are really economic islands. They order exotic parts from far, far away. They get very little down at the local hardware store.

Expect the worst, plan for the worst, do your best in terms of trying to patch up an economy you anticipate is going to be hit with a deadly slug — but in our experience, that’s not what happened.

Hebert: One of the smaller bright lights of this moment is there is a local company — Robotics of Vermont — who’s been trying to attract exactly the type of person who works at Vermont Yankee, they’ve been trying to attract nuclear engineers and those types of folks. So they will have some people hired, and they have a significant number of jobs. So that’s a positive, and it’s a first step forward. The company is in the process of negotiating international contracts and is anticipating within the next two or three years to double or triple in size.

The more that we look for those types of opportunities, the better off we’ll be, and that’ll require that we keep the dialogue open. Whether you’re pro-nuke or anti-nuke is irrelevant. The issue is we need to move forward economically.

Peters: We do have some of our own muck to clean up in our communities, since this has been an over-40-year discussion, and sometimes a very heated one. But we also have the opportunity where we can make this next transition what we want it to be.

There’s a lot out of our control, in many respects: the NRC, what goes on at the federal level, Entergy’s decisions, but there’s still a lot in our control. And I don’t think we should ever underestimate — and I say this as a journalist — the power of holding people accountable. And as Mike said, Entergy has kind of set their own standard, and so now we hold them accountable to that.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.