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Countdown to closure

In Vernon and Brattleboro, VY employees begin to prepare for the inevitable

To view the site assessment and other Entergy documents and information related to decommissioning, visit vydecommissioning.com.

Following is the first of a series of stories documenting the shifting context of Windham County as Vermont Yankee prepares for its permanent shutdown by the end of the year. The next installment will feature the antinuclear movement and where some of those involved in that longtime regional activism see their efforts, focus, and energy shifting.

BRATTLEBORO—Entergy’s corporate headquarters on Old Ferry Road sits quiet and mostly empty on one recent Friday afternoon.

Outside the building, the airwaves and Internet buzz with news of the company’s newly released site-assessment study outlining the decommissioning future of its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, a few miles away.

Inside, spokesperson Martin Cohn leads the way up a set of open stairs, to the right, down a hall, and into a second-floor conference room. The pungent scent of onions and Italian dressing lingers from lunch.

The quiet, slightly disorganized conference room belies the big steps into new territory Entergy took with the site assessment on Oct. 17.

Barrett Green, the head of the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Project, boldly admitted that Entergy’s past lack of openness with the state and the community contributed to a relationship of mistrust.

Some of Green’s colleagues worry that the site assessment will give opponents the excuse to muckrake.

“There’s going to be some of that,” said Green, leaning forward in a conference room chair.

Some community members will never be pleased, he said, noting that Entergy must remain open and play the long game of rebuilding its relationship with the state and community.

Cohn places the bound, 60-page site assessment book, complete with a CD of appendices, onto a conference table.

The assessment is reported to be the first of its kind assembled for the decommissioning of a nuclear plant. It contains information on the historical, environmental, and radiological condition of the site, details the changes in plant activities as it transitions to decommissioning, and outlines of cost estimates.

The site assessment forms the basis of discussions between Entergy and the state regarding decommissioning once the plant ceases operations in a little more than two months.

Rising costs

One of the most significant, but to some observers not surprising, pieces of information is a decommissioning-cost estimate of $1.24 billion in 2014 dollars.

Included in the estimate — an increase over previous studies — is $817 million to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for overseeing the plant during decommissioning (called “terminating the NRC operating license”), $368 million for spent fuel management, and $57 million for site restoration.

Another piece of significant, but not surprising news, is Entergy’s official announcement that it will take the decommissioning route of SAFSTOR, which defers most activities for multiple decades.

The NRC, as the federal regulatory agency, allows plant owners three decommissioning protocols: DECON, SAFSTOR, and ENTOMB.

In broad strokes, DECON — immediate decontamination — has the shortest timeline. Yankee Rowe was decommissioned according to the DECON protocol from 1992 to 2007.

ENTOMB — which Entergy staff say was never a viable option — involves encasing radioactive structures in a “long-lived substance,” like concrete, until the radiation decays to safe levels.

In contrast, the NRC allows up to 60 years for SAFSTOR.

In a press release, Entergy noted that, “With NRC approval, excess funds in the trust may be used for spent-fuel management activities.”

“Entergy plans to seek NRC approval to use a combination of the nuclear decommissioning trust funds and financing to fund spent fuel management to fulfill NRC financial assurance requirements for spent nuclear fuel, with financing being repaid from litigation recoveries of costs from the federal government,” wrote the company.

Some organizations like the Windham Regional Commission have maintained that prompt decommissioning would provide the softest economic landing for the community.

“There is no short-term resolution to this situation,” said Green of VY’s decommissioning.

Before Entergy purchased VY in 2002, Green served as one of the analysts that reviewed the plant’s economic viability. Based on that work, Green recommended that Entergy buy VY.

Over a decade later, Green presented data on VY’s economic situation in light of low natural-gas prices and pressures on the wholesale-energy market for small one-reactor plants like VY.

“I’ve lived the analysis,” he said.

This data led full circle to Entergy deciding to close the plant.

Green said that he asked three vendors to provide cost estimates for prompt DECON. Estimates ranged from $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion. Entergy’s subsidiary, TLG Services Inc., which specializes in decommissioning, provided an estimate of $1.25 billion.

Entergy chose SAFSTOR because it came with the best cost estimates, he said.

Green added that decommissioning isn’t strictly a choice between prompt DECON or waiting decades in SAFSTOR.

“There’s a number of moving parts,” he said.

SAFSTOR at VY might not take the full 60 years. Its schedule will depend on the decommissioning fund levels and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) developing a federal spent-fuel repository, said Green.

In an agreement with the state reached last year, Entergy pledged to start decommissioning within 120 days of the plant’s fund having enough money for the project. Though the SAFSTOR process could permit Entergy to start dismantling the plant in 2069, the company under the agreement could start dismantling the plant by the 2040s.

Fuel storage questions

Another big piece of the decommissioning puzzle is storage of the 3,880 radioactive spent-fuel assemblies.

Eventually, the spent fuel will move to 58 dry casks for storage. Entergy anticipates moving all the rods from the spent-fuel pool to on-site dry-cask storage by 2020.

The waste will have to remain on site until the federal government develops a federal repository.

One assumption Green has based his estimates on is statements from the DOE that it might remove all of VY’s nuclear waste by 2053.

“The need for a spent-fuel management plan is largely driven by the U.S. Department of Energy’s failure to remove and dispose spent nuclear fuel, for which [Entergy] and prior owners of VY have already paid the DOE more than $119 million,” wrote Entergy in a press release.

Entergy will sue the DOE to recoup costs related to managing the spent fuel, like constructing the second pad that will hold dry casks.

The SAFSTOR long time frame allows radioactivity to naturally decay. The company touts the protocol as helping to reduce workers’ radiation exposure and reducing the need to ship radioactive infrastructure.

Many community discussions have focused on reusing the VY site for economic development, though Green said it’s unlikely that most of the plant’s approximately 127 acres could be reused with the rods still stored on site.

With nuclear waste on the land for decades to come, economic development might have to happen elsewhere in Vernon and Windham County.

When asked about community concerns that Entergy will leave VY as a Superfund site — one requiring massive public funds for cleanup of industrial properties — Green replied, “I don’t understand how they’re arriving at that.”

Green said he feels that the company operates VY responsibly and will continue to do the same with the plant’s decommissioning process.

Economic future

While community members’ feelings toward nuclear power have varied, the fact that VY has served as an economic engine for the region seems set in stone. The loss of more than 500 jobs with an average wage of $100,000 — and the people who hold those jobs — will have repercussions for the tri-state region.

Green said that Entergy will tier down its charitable donations to multiple local nonprofits.

“It’s going to be a very tough time to be a charitable organization,” said Green.

Green praised the VY employees who have continued to operate the plant without incident or injury.

Employees run the plant despite experiencing emotional disruption and professional trauma and pressure on their personal lives, he said.

“It’s a real achievement and a testimony to the quality of the people at the site,” Green said.

More than 500 employees still work at VY. After the plant closes, about half will move on in February.

Green said about 60 employees will take jobs at other Entergy-owned plants. He’s working on arrangements for another 40 employees and approximately 50 who weren’t selected for SAFSTOR work and are deciding whether they want to stay with Entergy.

Preparing for the next phase

It’s been almost a week since Entergy released the site assessment, and the headquarters and adjacent training center on Old Ferry Road are buzzing with activity.

A news anchor and camera operator from a Burlington television station drove south to interview employees and managers for a special on the plant slated to air next month.

In the morning, Cohn and his small army of corporate communications types led the news crew from the training center back to headquarters. They marshaled employees and supporters for a host of interviews.

Other preparations for an employee job fair later in the afternoon keep people moving back and forth along the training center’s hallway past posters declaring “Finish Strong!” — posters that highlight the need to maintain morale and work standards in the plant’s final days.

On this morning of Oct. 23, longtime employees Lynn DeWald and Brian J. Tietze pause for lunch while awaiting their turn in front of the camera.

DeWald, who smiles easily but speaks little compared to her gregarious colleague, has worked as in-house environmental specialist for 13 years. Prior to that, she worked as a contractor at the plant from 1995 to 2002.

DeWald oversees all non-radiological environmental programs like stormwater runoff, the thermal discharge permit, and measuring the quality of drinking water at the plant.

“I call her the queen of land, air, sea, and water,” Tietze says with a laugh, expressing respect for DeWald’s work.

Tietze, the supervisor of plant services, said he often calls on DeWald in his daily rounds maintaining the plant’s buildings and other infrastructure to make sure he’s staying within any of the plant’s permits.

A 33-year employee with VY, Tietze said he’s the longest-standing line supervisor in Vermont.

He says he “keeps the buildings running,” including roofs, sewer lines, lighting, and security.

“In my job, I don’t know what’s going to break,” says Tietze, who says that lightning storms can wreak havoc on his schedule. They send the computers in the HQ and training center “into a tizzy.”

“I know the people to call,” he says, referencing the 40 to 50 outside contractors.

One of his first big projects at VY was creating the headquarters building from the Famolare Shoe corporate building and converting its warehouse into the VY training center.

Tietze oozes joy, however, when speaking about the community projects he has coordinated at places like the Boys & Girls Club in Brattleboro, the Brattleboro Area Drop-in Center, or Morningside Shelter.

After Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Boys & Girls Club in 2011, Tietze said a number of Entergy employees helped clean up and make repairs. Employees also volunteered to repair and upgrade the Drop-In Center, where they built a food storage garage, they rebuilt portions of the main house like the roof and floors, and they installed a new furnace.

He receives a lot of enjoyment, Tietze said, from “how we’re taking care of families in the area.”

DeWald said she loves her colleagues’ level of professionalism, competence, and caring.

“It’s fun to come to work every day,” she said.

Tietze echoes DeWald. “I’ve never worked with such a high caliber group of people,” he says.

A friend of a friend first invited Tietze to take a job at VY in 1977 while he was living in his native Long Island. At first, Tietze, who owned his own landscaping business, turned VY down.

But when a second call came in 1982, Tietze says, he took the job.

Decommissioning at the plant won’t change DeWald’s overall responsibilities, she says, unfazed. Her day-to-day duties in ensuring that VY complies with permits will shift once a number of non-radiological buildings come down after Jan. 1.

Tietze adds that his department is scheduled to tear down some auxiliary buildings, starting in November with a structure called Gatehouse 3.

Between January and March 2015, the department is also scheduled to tear down the Power Uprate Building (PUB), the south warehouse, the pipe storage building, and one structure affectionally known as the GUB: the “Green Ugly Building.”

DeWald will remain with Entergy for 18 months after the plant enters SAFSTOR.

Then, said the Walpole, N.H., resident, she’ll see what comes next. She hopes to stay in the area.

“It’s like reading tea leaves,” she said.

Tietze retires Jan. 19.

His position has required him to effectively be on call 24/7. He sleeps with his pager. He grins and announces that he has 33 working days left, less some vacation and holiday time.

“Golfing,” he answers immediately when asked if he had any plans for retirement.

But in all seriousness, he adds that he thought of selling his house near the Vernon Elementary School.

The plant’s closure, however, has caused his home’s value to drop more than $100,000, Tietze says, observing that without high-end jobs, there can’t be high-end homes.

Despite Entergy’s assertion to the contrary, Tietze and DeWald attribute the closing of VY to the state and Governor Peter Shumlin.

When Entergy announced last year that it would close the plant, it pointed to economic trends in the energy market. The company stressed that neither the state nor the anti-nuclear opposition to the continued operation of Vermont Yankee influenced its decision.

Tietze points to a line in a Shumlin re-election campaign brochure that reads “negotiating the closure of Vermont Yankee, while securing more than $15 million in economic development and clean energy resources for Windham County.”

That talking point doesn’t tell the whole story, argues Tietze, who claims the state will lose $85 million after the plant closes. He likens it to going to a casino and losing $20 but getting really excited that you just won $2.

Once VY closes, one of the state’s primary energy suppliers will be TransCanada, a shift that some VY employees view as equivalent to outsourcing their jobs.

If the state wants to have an environmentally green reputation and fight climate change, then why does it not support nuclear power? DeWald asks.

“There’s no defensible argument that nuclear power is not a force behind carbon-free emissions,” she asserts.

‘Re-energizing Vernon’

Vernon Selectboard chair and former State Representative Patty O’Donnell holds up a notepad that bears a small sketch in the upper left corner of the Governor Hunt House. Entergy owns the 1789 homestead of Jonathan Hunt, one of the earliest Vermont settlers.

Cohn has just given O’Donnell the notepad, left over from a printing done decades ago, as a small token. She smiles and tells Cohn how much she loves it. Vernon Selectboard Vice-Chair Janet Rasmussen receives a matching beige-colored notepad.

One of many questions to arise from Entergy’s decision to close VY is how to best re-employ the plant’s large workforce. While some workers will take jobs at other Entergy plants or retire, others might opt to stay in the area.

O’Donnell and Rasmussen hope to support such employees with a new program called Re-energize Vernon. They recently interviewed for a grant through the Windham County Economic Development Program (WCEDP) to start a business incubator in the Governor Hunt House.

Funding for the WCEDP comes from $10 million over five years, in economic development funds from Entergy as part of an agreement reached with the state last year.

O’Donnell and Rasmussen credit Vernon-based Vermont Woods Studio founder Peggy Farabaugh with suggesting the program.

O’Donnell says that VY employees, who can get up to a year’s salary as a bonus for staying on to see the plant through its last days, can use such retention bonuses to launch businesses.

If 10 new successful businesses each hire 10 new employees, it could be a “real rebirth” for the Vernon economy, explains O’Donnell, a staunch supporter of Entergy who says she wanted to call it “Re-Enterg-ize Vernon.”

The incubator will have space for 15 entrepreneurs. Former Vermont Yankee employees get first dibs, followed by VY employee family members, and then Vernon residents.

O’Donnell says that an intention behind the incubator is to partner with local agencies like the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. to provide a continuum of business technical support services for foundling enterprises like accounting, legal advice, and website development.

Rasmussen says that Entergy is a partner in this new enterprise. The company has agreed to pay for high-speed Internet to the Governor Hunt House.

Phase one of the program will entail setting up the business incubator. The next phase will encompass creating an energy research center and partnering with local universities.

Phase three anticipates a gas-powered — or gas- and solar-powered — facility on the VY property which feeds into the New England power grid.

Rasmussen, owner of the energy consultancy firm Rasmussen Energy Advisors, says the area needs an energy source capable of replacing the 650 megawatts baseload power produced by Vermont Yankee.

Rasmussen and O’Donnell point to rising electricity costs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts as a reason for Vermont to diversify its energy generation rather than depend only on solar or hydroelectric power.

A new power generating facility on the VY site could connect in nearby Northfield, Mass., to the gas pipeline that Kinder Morgan is seeking to run across Massachusetts, Rasmussen says.

Vernon had entertained proposals for a biomass plant, but the prospect of ash from the thousands of logs that would fuel such a plant nixed the plan for the Selectboard, O’Donnell says.

Not just about the money

Approximately 575 employees still come to work in almost equal numbers from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Entergy laid off approximately 75 employees over the past year. The next round of layoffs, or relocations, for more than 200 additional employees is expected in mid-January when the plant transitions to SAFSTOR.

The company has held multiple seminars to prepare employees for the next phase of their careers. Seminars included resume writing, interviewing skills, financial planning, and real estate planning.

The anticipated ripple effect of so many people and their families losing their jobs or transferring out of state at once has inspired the departments of labor in the three states to join forces for the first time.

On this day, approximately 50 companies from the tri-state area have signed up to attend a job fair in the VY training center jointly sponsored by the three states.

Shelby Spedding, who pauses to talk to a potential employer, worked as a contractor for VY for about two years before taking a full-time position with the company 2{1/2} years ago. The administrative specialist schedules work orders when the plant was operating and also helps organize work during planned outages — or will until Jan. 19.

The 27-year-old Northfield, Mass. resident wants to remain in the town she loves.

“I love people,” she says. “I have to keep a people element.”

Spedding appears to interact with strangers easily. She has a lot of energy, passion, and focus. In her next job, she wants to work in the realm of training or human resources, for a company that matches potential workers with new jobs.

Losing her current “work family” will be hard, says Spedding.

Like many of her colleagues, it still pains her to see members of her community celebrate VY’s closure. It’s a problem when everyone forgets the human element of VY closing, she add.

“I’d love it if people stopped rubbing it in,” she says.

When asked about the possibility of taking a lower-wage job after VY, Spedding says that staying local is more important than earning a predetermined salary.

Some friends have chosen money, she says, and those friends now live in a town and work a job where they’re unhappy.

“Money talks to some people, but location talks to me,” Spedding said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #278 (Wednesday, October 29, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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