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What weaves together a community?

Working group wants to focus on the socioeconomic effects of Vermont Yankee’s closing and how to keep the community fabric whole

PUTNEY—How does the fabric of a community remain whole when a large part of its economic weft is pulled from the weave?

Most of the conversations about Windham County after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closes at the end of this year have focused on the plant’s decommissioning and whether it would receive the necessary state-issued Certificate of Public Good.

A working group composed of economic development gurus, planners, academics, and officials from the tri-state region of Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire are focusing instead on the oft-underrepresented effect nuclear plants have on the socioeconomic fabric of a community.

Socioeconomics are about people: their talents, their volunteerism, and the money they circulate in the economy, said Jeffrey Lewis, former executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., and co-founder of the working group.

“When they leave, they take that talent with them,” Lewis said.

When a plant closes, attention zooms in on the plant’s physical decommissioning or site reuse, he said.

This flurry of activity eventually ends, Lewis continued. “But the community remains.”

It’s important to separate socioeconomic changes related to a plant closing from the safety and environmental concerns because “one can overwhelm the other,” said Lewis.

Members of the working group say the community can view the plant closing as an opportunity to rebuild the economy into a more resilient and more robust version of itself.

But will the changes come fast enough for the people now living in the tri-state region?

The group hosted a planning conference at Landmark College in Putney on April 2. The working group’s goal is to organize a national conference that gives communities hosting nuclear plants a voice that the usual conversation between federal agencies and plant operators doesn’t.

According to Lewis, about 102 nuclear plants will close by 2050. This landslide of closures means more host communities could face the same problems as Windham County. Yet, without a “Nuclear Plant Closing 101” playbook of best practices, how will these communities know they received a fair deal?

When comparing agreements between host communities and closed nuclear plants like Yankee Rowe in Rowe, Mass., Lewis said, “Those deals are all different. There are no benchmarks. There [are] no shared experiences.”

Bigger questions for future research

Dialogue at the daylong Landmark College meeting raised more questions than it did answers. The group did not develop an agenda for a future national conference as it intended. The attendees did, however, pinpoint areas of research that needed further exploration.

When a community loses a major employer, the loss of those jobs, people, and financial contributions tears at the region as a whole, the group contends. New England has witnessed similar economic upheavals with the loss of its textile mills.

Windham County has seen the leaving of large employers like The Book Press.

Vermont Yankee, owned by Louisiana-based Entergy, employs an estimated 630 workers with an average annual wage of $100,000. Estimates also divide the workforce equally as residing in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The plant has contributed money to the surrounding economies in the form of wages, charitable giving, and taxes.

Nuclear plant closings come with a unique set of problems, said organizers Lewis and John Mullin, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The men explained that such sites can not be reused for many years; the plants often carry a stigma long after shutdown; the jobs tend to pay above average; many plants are located in rural areas with smaller economies unable to absorb shocks like urban areas; and the highly trained workforce usually leaves with the plant.

At the end of March, the Public Service Board issued a Certificate of Public Good for VY to continue operation until the end of this year. In its ruling, the PSB devoted a substantial amount of text to Entergy’s less-than-upstanding behavior.

The board’s ruling, however, also solidified an agreement between Entergy and the state that includes economic aid for Windham County. The county will receive $10 million in economic development funds and $5.2 million in money for renewable energy projects.

“There will be no cookie-cutter approach, but maybe we can come to the most successful process,” said Lawrence Miller, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD).

Miller said he grew up around people who worked in the nuclear industry, but the operation of VY was “much more emotionally loaded than I initially appreciated,” he said.

According to Miller, the first $2 million installment of the $10 million has arrived from Entergy. The money and project approval will flow through the ACCD.

Miller said strong community support will be one factor in awarding project funds.

When a military base closes, said Mullin, the federal government sends in an agency called the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), whose mission is to shepherd the host community and local economy through the transition.

There’s no equivalent agency for nuclear plant closings, he said.

Who has the authority?

Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner and Vermont PSB commissioner, stated that host communities and states needed a clearer sense of just which entities possess the legal responsibility on decommissioning and economic development regarding nuclear plants.

Communities stand before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant owner hat in hand, he said. Instead, the national, state, owner, and local community balance shifts once decommissioning begins.

Bradford said that nuclear plant owners and the NRC govern radiological safety. But outside the safety issue, decommissioning becomes a land-use question in which the states and local communities have a say.

The NRC only preempts radiological safety, he said. If the state wants VY decommissioned in 25 years, as opposed to 60, that request is not pre-empted.

Bradford based his statements on the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission. This case set the precedent on pre-emption, and said that states have the right to regulate non-radiological safety areas such as economic development.

Vermont relied on the PG&E case when Entergy took the state to court over pre-emption in 2011.

Legislators talked about radiological safety and VY in the same breath, said Bradford — that’s why the state ran afoul of PG&E. Going forward, however, can be a different process.

Past agreements and events around nuclear plant closings do not bind the future, Bradford said.

Building a united front

Conversations during breakout sessions at the April 2 conference shifted between identifying potential national issues and addressing the immediate needs of the home region after VY closes.

“When Windham County does well, we do well,” said Jessica Atwood, senior economic development planner with Franklin Regional Council of Governments, based in Greenfield, Mass.

Atwood stressed the need to develop a united, multi-region, and multi-state approach that could ensure the necessary people sat at the negotiating table. The united front could also better leverage federal, private, state, and local dollars.

When asked if she felt that Franklin County had been left out of the economic development loop because it won’t directly receive money from Entergy, Atwood said the $10 million coming to Windham County benefits everyone.

Those millions are a big pot of seed money that can leverage other resources, said Atwood.

“It’s going to be a long, slow process to rebuild this economy,” said BDCC Executive Director Patricia Moulton Powden.

Moulton Powden agreed with Atwood that the region needed to figure out how to “leverage the heck out of those resources.”

Audience members also questioned whether the region could move forward until it had healed from more than 40 years of divisiveness created by controversy surrounding the plant and nuclear power in general.

The community as a whole has devolved into a disrespectful treatment of fellow residents based on their views of VY, said Moulton Powden.

“It’s so disrespectful,” she said. “How do we become adults about this?”

Optimism despite the odds

At times during the day, the socioeconomic issue of VY’s closing appeared too tangled with issues of spent-fuel storage, federal regulations, and environmental factors to be discussed individually.

But in admitting more questions existed than answers, attendees honed the larger topic of socioeconomic impacts into a more manageable list of topics for future research.

Optimism rose to the surface throughout the day, leading some to leave the conference experiencing a positive state they said they rarely associated with Vermont Yankee.

Frank Knott, economic development specialist and founder of Vital Economy Alliance, said the region could turn what now feels like a crisis into an opportunity if it wanted to.

The region could become national leaders in the area of helping host communities plan for the closure of local nuclear plants, Knott added.

Attendee and local writer Rebecca Balint said that despite the many unknowns raised during the day’s discussions, she said that she felt hopeful.

Lewis echoed Knott and Balint, saying that the meeting ended with attendees telling him they felt “a sense that something significant was going on.”

Members of the working group said they came away from the meeting believing that southeastern Vermont and partners in Massachusetts and New Hampshire could leverage their knowledge and experience to help themselves and other communities.

“It’s exciting and daunting to tell you the truth,” said Lewis of the work ahead.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #249 (Wednesday, April 9, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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