As public officials and experts gathered here to talk about the impact of nuclear-plant closures, there was a common theme: uncertainty.
That word applies to the surprisingly scattershot federal nuclear decommissioning regulations.
Speakers at the Oct. 21 conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst used the words “mess” and “travesty” to describe the lack of clear guidelines.
But there’s also much uncertainty over the ways in which a shutdown affects a community, given all the factors that make a nuclear plant unique — issues ranging from the size and affluence of its workforce to the potency and long-term residency of its spent fuel.
“We’re all, frankly [...] still learning about what happens when you close a nuclear power plant — particularly when you close a merchant nuclear plant,” said Jeff Lewis, executive director of the Amherst-based Institute for Nuclear Host Communities.
Lewis added: “We have an opportunity to create new policies and procedures as well as to make new mistakes that we don’t even understand yet.”
The two-year-old institute headed by Lewis — the former executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. — tries to give “communities that host nuclear power plants the knowledge and tools they need to shape their post-closure futures.”
That was the primary topic of the Oct. 21 conference, “Nuclear Power Plant Closure and Decommissioning: Aging Plants, Ongoing Challenges, New Questions.”
And it was clear that the “knowledge and tools” sought by towns dealing with nuclear shutdowns still are very much a work in progress — in part, because there haven’t been many plant decommissionings in the U.S.
Jonathan Cooper, Institute for Nuclear Host Communities research director, detailed two “waves” of nuclear-plant closures.
The first happened from 1989 to 1998 and included several New England plants: Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee, and Maine Yankee.
The second wave stretches from 2013 to 2019, including last year’s closure of Entergy’s Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon.
A new addition to the list is Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, as Entergy announced last week that the Plymouth, Mass., plant would stop producing power by 2019.
Cooper noted some key differences between the first and second wave of closures. Notably, most of the early shutdowns were followed by immediate decommissioning, whereas the latest plants to cease operations have tended toward the long-term dormancy program option called SAFSTOR.
Vermont Yankee is headed into SAFSTOR, in which the federal government allows up to 60 years for decommissioning.
Cooper said the difference is primarily a matter of short-term financial considerations.
After deregulation, the plants, previously owned by consortiums of electrical utilities, became investor-owned. “The up-front costs for immediate decommissioning are high,” Cooper said. “It just involves more people doing more work in a short period of time.”
Multiple factors complicate cleanup
The difficulty and expense involved in cleaning up a nuclear site was one of several factors cited by Cooper in explaining why nuclear-plant closures pose big, new challenges for local and state officials.
Those factors include the fact that nuclear plants tend to be located in rural areas with smaller populations and limited political influence — “out of sight and out of mind,” Cooper said.
Also, the significant tax valuations of nuclear plants as well as their large workforces are a “major contributor to the local economy,” Cooper said. The average nuclear plant employs 950, he said, while the average non-nuclear power plant has a staff of just 70.
Vermont Yankee employed about 550 prior to shutdown last year, a number that has shrunk to roughly 300 at last count, with another big round of cuts scheduled for spring 2016.
Nuclear workforces are well-paid, making them difficult to retain or replace: A 2014 study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute found that the average wage at Vermont Yankee was $105,000.
When considering indirect and “induced” economic factors — “induced” meaning local spending by Yankee employees — the plant last year generated nearly $500 million in regional economic activity, the report estimated. That number is expected to shrink to an estimated $5.5 million after 2021.
There also are big cleanup challenges. Cooper said a 1980 estimate by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that nuclear decommissioning costs would equate to about 10 percent of a plant’s construction cost.
That does not ring true at Vermont Yankee: Cooper said Yankee’s original construction bill would be about $1.24 billion in today’s dollars, yet Entergy has said decommissioning the plant will take that exact same amount of money.
And there is the problem of radioactive material: Given the lack of any national repository for spent nuclear fuel, the long-term presence of radioactive material at plant sites “creates a tense holding pattern” and “poses exceptional challenges for site reuse,” Cooper said.
Overwhelmed public officials
Assistance — or the lack thereof — also was an aggravating factor cited by Cooper. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission focuses strictly on decommissioning issues, leaving states and local governments to deal with a variety of economic and environmental concerns.
“The implications can be overwhelming to local officials,” Cooper said.
That certainly has happened with Vermont Yankee, as state and regional leaders have complained vehemently about a lack of input in federally regulated matters.
At the Oct. 21 conference, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany dubbed the process “a mess” and said his agency is engaged — though it’s not clear to what end.
“The nation’s nuclear-decommissioning policy is just fundamentally broken,” Campany said.
For example, Campany said Windham Regional favors immediate decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, though it seems clear that the plant is headed for SAFSTOR.
NRC officials have declined to challenge Entergy’s decision on that front, saying SAFSTOR is considered a safe and legitimate program.
Also lamenting SAFSTOR — and the state of state input in decommissioning — was Trey Martin, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. “There’s a tremendous lack of clarity in the path forward right now,” Martin said.
NRC officials are drawing up new nuclear-decommissioning guidelines, but those won’t be finished in time to affect key Vermont Yankee–related decisions over the next few years.
So Entergy has sought to make site changes via license amendments and exemptions — for instance, shrinking the size of Yankee’s emergency-planning zone — and the state has challenged many of those changes.
Learning from other communities
For now, communities facing future nuclear shutdowns might have to lean heavily on other communities that have gone through the process — or those who are going through it now.
That’s where the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities comes into play.
In Plymouth, Mass., “we’re just at the very beginning of the process,” said Lee Hartmann, the town’s planning and development director.
Even before Entergy’s surprise announcement about Pilgrim’s pending closure, officials in the Plymouth area already had enlisted expert help to look at the impacts of the plant’s closing, Hartmann said. Now, that planning must be accelerated.
The plant makes up just 5 percent of Plymouth’s tax revenue, but even relatively small decreases in that revenue could lead to cuts in town personnel, he said.
More immediately, Hartmann is concerned about safety at Pilgrim — ensuring that the plant operates safely in its final years.
As Pilgrim’s shutdown approaches, “there’s no guidebook, and everybody’s different,” Hartmann said during a break in the Oct. 21 conference.
“What we really want to talk about is, what can we do — what are the best practices?” he said. “To some degree, we also look at this as a great opportunity to see what we can do better.”