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Lessons learned

After grappling with economic and regulatory issues related to the shutdown of Vermont Yankee, regional officials unveil a guide for other communities facing nuclear decommissioning

BRATTLEBORO—Early in a new report on Vermont Yankee’s shutdown, officials in the Windham County region acknowledge that the closure’s full impacts “have yet to be realized and may not necessarily be easy to quantify.”

Nevertheless, they believe they’ve got a story to tell.

That’s the purpose of the report, framed as “lessons learned” both before and after the Vernon nuclear plant’s December 2014 closure.

The document — the result of a tri-state effort — serves as an advisory, a tutorial, and a warning for other communities that might face a loss of jobs, tax revenue, and residents due to a nuclear shutdown.

The document’s perceived importance was emphasized by its release Oct. 14 at a downtown Brattleboro gathering attended by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.; and Matt Erskine, a top official at the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“Other towns, regions, and communities across the nation will learn from your experience to help set their course forward,” Erskine said.

Multiple challenges

In the wake of Vermont Yankee’s closure, officials in Windham County have wrestled with challenges, including complex federal nuclear regulations, abrupt economic impacts, continued conflict between the state and the plant’s owner, and limited financial and technical resources to deal with it all.

The plant’s demise also has had an impact on neighboring Franklin County, Massachusetts, and Cheshire County, New Hampshire. The majority of Vermont Yankee employees, who numbered about 550 just prior to shutdown, have lived in those three counties.

Now, the tri-state counties have teamed up to produce a report, “When People and Money Leave (and the Plant Stays).” Its subtitle: “Lessons Learned from the Closure of the Vermont Yankee Power Station: A Tri-Region Experience.” The full document is available for download at brattleborodevelopment.com.

In Windham County, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and Windham Regional Commission contributed to the report. Also involved were the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and the Southwest Region Planning Commission, based in Keene, New Hampshire.

That cooperative effort across state lines, which has spurred wider conversations among the counties, was lauded repeatedly at the Oct. 14 event.

“What I’ve seen that’s inspiring to me is the all-in approach that folks in the region are taking,” Welch said.

Some of the new report’s key points “are applicable to any locale that will or could lose a major employer,” said Adam Grinold, executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.

Leahy said he believes the document could have broad applicability for any region struggling with economic recovery. It could apply, he said, to Appalachian communities dealing with a transition away from coal mining and coal-fired plants.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” Leahy said. “This is a people issue.”

A focus on nuclear

But the report — which was produced with funding from the Economic Development Administration and BDCC — mostly focuses specifically on nuclear decommissioning issues. Those issues have caused uncertainty in this region and beyond.

Experts have said the Vermont Yankee situation is representative of a new wave of nuclear closures. They typically involve “merchant” plants, which are not utility-owned and sell power into the wholesale market. And they’ve been marked by a shift toward the lengthy SAFSTOR decommissioning schedule, under which plant cleanup can take 60 years.

Chris Campany, Windham Regional’s executive director, said he recently has fielded decommissioning inquiries from New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts, where Entergy has announced plans to close the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in 2019.

“I’m getting more questions from other places,” Campany said. With the issuance of the new report, he added, “now I can point them to something and say, ’Take a look at this.’”

In addition to its main themes, the report offers other bits of information and advice including the importance of citizens’ advisory panels; the probability that a nuclear site will remain off-limits for redevelopment for many years; and the sharp drop in workforce associated with the slower SAFSTOR method of decommissioning.

Additionally, officials exhort nuclear host communities to “please get involved” in federal decommissioning rule-making. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the midst of that process, and Vermont’s congressional delegation has been among those weighing in, pushing for more state and local involvement.

At the Oct. 14 gathering, Welch reiterated that “we have got to make certain that the [decommissioning] procedures that are enacted [...] absolutely, fundamentally include the local community.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #379 (Wednesday, October 19, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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