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Vernon a hot topic at national nuclear summit

Amid talk of markets and regulation, federal officials and industry leaders hear a cautionary tale about the impacts of Vermont Yankee’s closure

VERNON—At a May 19 nuclear power summit in Washington, D.C., top-ranking federal officials and industry executives focused on market forces and government regulation.

But Patty O’Donnell made sure the audience also heard about declining property values, underfunded nonprofits, and lost friends — all in the context of Vermont Yankee’s 2014 shutdown.

Her message was clear: If the pace of nuclear shutdowns accelerates, many other communities can expect to experience the problems that are plaguing Vernon and the surrounding tri-state area.

“There is so much more to this story and so much more to this issue than just where the electricity’s coming from,” O’Donnell said. “There’s a real human aspect to this.”

O’Donnell, a former state representative and Vernon Selectboard member who remains involved in town government, was invited to speak at the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Summit on Improving the Economics of America’s Power Plants.”

The context of that discussion is the recent spate of plant-closure announcements in the U.S. In this region, Entergy Corp. is moving forward with plans to downsize its nuclear fleet: The company stopped power production at Vermont Yankee in December 2014 and has disclosed plans to close the FitzPatrick nuclear plant in Scriba, N.Y., in January 2017 and the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Mass., in May 2019.

In each of those cases, Entergy has cited economic and competitive issues including high operational costs and low natural-gas prices.

There also are governmental and regulatory issues, a point underlined at the May 19 meeting by Bill Mohl, who is president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities and the man who delivered the news of Vermont Yankee’s pending closure here in summer 2013.

Mohl argued that nuclear power’s attributes — including a lack of air pollution — aren’t adequately valued in the energy market.

“You need to put a price on carbon,” Mohl said. “You need to be able to value the carbon-free generation that nuclear provides.”

Environmental impact also was on the mind of U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who said it will be difficult to achieve the nation’s carbon-reduction goals if nuclear generation continues to decline.

“We are supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting or simply replacing by building [plants] to just kind of tread water,” Moniz said.

In delivering the May 19 conference’s keynote address, Moniz mentioned the closure of Vermont Yankee and linked it to an overall decline in regional energy generation; an increase in reliance on natural-gas power generation; and an increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

“That’s the kind of confluence of data that we would like to avoid more of,” Moniz said.

O’Donnell later took the same podium, but sought to shift the focus to a different kind of impact from nuclear plant closures.

Vermont Yankee has been and remains controversial statewide and locally, but there traditionally has been strong support in Vernon. O’Donnell said that support continues, even as the plant continues to downsize its labor force.

“Vermont Yankee — Entergy — isn’t just a company to us. It’s a member of our family. And they’ve treated us that way all along the way,” O’Donnell said.

Across the area, Entergy employees “coach our kids. They teach our kids,” O’Donnell said. “They serve on our Selectboards, our volunteer fire departments — they’re always there when we need them.”

She also noted Entergy’s now-dwindling annual support for area nonprofits — support that has come in the form of monetary donations and volunteerism. “The people who worked at Vermont Yankee were so generous that they always gave to their community,” O’Donnell said.

The town of Vernon has seen direct economic impact as tax revenue shrinks and home values decline in the wake of Vermont Yankee’s shutdown, O’Donnell told summit attendees. And she said there’s no replacing the nuclear plant’s lost wages: A 2014 study found that the average annual salary at Vermont Yankee was $105,000.

“Anybody who thinks New England’s growing sure as heck hasn’t been in my area,” O’Donnell said. “Because there’s nothing. Vermont Yankee [jobs] were the highest-paid jobs in the state of Vermont, and they’re gone.”

“I want to impress upon you how difficult it is for these communities,” she added. “It’s not only the town of Vernon that’s been affected. It’s our entire region.”

O’Donnell also detailed the town’s recent courtship of a natural-gas-fired power plant — a work-intensive process that ended when energy giant Kinder Morgan suspended its controversial plans to build a gas pipeline nearby.

“Now what do we do?” O’Donnell said. “We’re back to square one.”

Several days after the conference, O’Donnell said she hoped she successfully translated the experiences of a small town for a national audience. Recounting the tone of the summit — “a sense of urgency” was a common theme — O’Donnell also found herself wondering why the nuclear industry has arrived at such a critical juncture.

“You hear them saying the same things that we’ve said here in Vernon for a number of years,” she said. “It makes you stop and think: How did this happen?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #359 (Wednesday, June 1, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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