VERNON—A new land inventory report offers a series of possibilities for the Vermont Yankee site to eventually be used for industry, recreation, preserving habitat, and recognizing the Abenaki relationship to the banks of the Connecticut River, past and present.
The report is a collaboration between Antioch University New England, NorthStar, the town of Vernon, and Rich Holschuh, representing the Elnu Abenaki tribe. It exists in a hard copy and an online interactive version.
The nuclear plant started operating in 1972 and for decades served as the primary industry in Vernon.
Since VY’s former owner, Entergy, announced in 2013 that it would close the boiling water nuclear reactor, the town has sought to identify businesses to replace the plant at the 125-acre property. The Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) switchyard as well as railroad spurs which remain on the site.
That ambition is a novel idea in the world of decommissioned nuclear sites, at least in New England.
“This project is an innovative model of collaboration for site restoration planning that will support redevelopment efforts at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant site once the decommissioning process is completed,” states the report. “Overall, lessons learned will be instrumental in guiding best practices moving forward for subsequent site decommissioning(s) and arrangements for restoration and redevelopment.”
The report contains a history of the nuclear plant and its impact on Vernon’s economy. It also catalogues the site’s geological and cultural features, including soil types, hydrology, plant and animal species, and built infrastructure, and it includes an archaeological sensitivity index, which “indicates areas that are likely to be sensitive and, therefore, should be evaluated for significant archaeological importance prior to development.”
Reuse scenarios suggested in the report incorporate the fact that the former plant’s spent fuel will remain on site — at least until the U.S. Department of Energy establishes an alternative storage facility.
Until then, the spent fuel is stored in casks onsite in the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI).
According to the report, commercial and industrial investors will find the property attractive given its waterfront location and access to major highways and the site’s existing infrastructure.
“The future redevelopment will coexist with these ISFSI and the town of Vernon will ensure the safety and management of this area,” the report states.
The report offers three scenarios for the site’s future. All three visualize continued industrial use, along with land reserved for recreation (like bike trails) and natural habitat such as wetlands.
All three scenarios recognize the Abenaki people’s past and current use of the site.
The main question: How much of the property and which parts of it would be allocated for each use?
NorthStar, the site’s current owner, is on track to finish its decommissioning work by 2026, years ahead of its original 2030 estimate, according to an email from Scott State, CEO and Chief Nuclear Officer for VY Decommissioning.
The new report will not impact NorthStar’s decommissioning process, which is governed by state and federal regulations. NorthStar, however, has been vocal about collaborating with Vernon to ensure a successful transition back to town ownership. The company will continue to support the process through funding and by providing technical support, wrote State.
“As part of our commitment to good corporate citizenship in the communities where we work, NorthStar is pleased to collaborate with the town of Vernon and Antioch University to advance this innovative model for site restoration planning,” wrote State, who called the report “the first tangible product of this iterative planning process.”
All part of the plan
In 2018, the town added a section to its Town Plan focusing on post-VY resiliency. The text makes it clear that the town wants the business on the site, said Martin Langeveld, clerk of the Planning Commission.
On the surface, Vernon appears to be a rural community, “but it’s been in the energy business since 1912, when the Vernon dam was built and then, in the 1960s, when they got started with Vermont Yankee,” he said.
The sites of VY’s sister plants — Yankee Rowe and Maine Yankee — have not been put back into commercial use.
“Of the former nuclear plant sites that have been fully decommissioned in the U.S., none of them have been industrially redeveloped,” he added.
The inventory report, funded by NorthStar, helps the town understand what lies under the surface of the VY site. Knowing the types of soils, how water flows, and the property’s general geography will inform the future use and the types of businesses that might locate on the site, he said.
The report represents the outcome of phase one of the Planning Commission’s work.
Phase two will include an expanded online version of the report that will allow users to view the information on a deeper level — for example, to create visual renderings of each layer of the ground.
A Vermont Municipal Planning Grant awarded last year by the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development will fund phase two, which also includes hiring a consultant to design potential plans that could attract businesses.
Langeveld said that the Planning Commission has drafted a request for proposals for final approval by the Selectboard regarding this next phase. If approved, the commission anticipates the consultant to complete work by Aug. 31.
Reconnecting to Native heritage
Rich Holschuh contributed to a section in the report detailing the human and cultural heritage at the VY site. He also wrote the indigenous land acknowledgement included in the report.
Holschuh said that the local Abenaki have gathered, fished, and planted crops at the Great Bend area of the Connecticut River for centuries. Burial sites found in the area attest to its heritage.
Across the river, in Hinsdale, N.H., an archeological site dates back to King Philip’s War, which took place from 1675 to 1678, he said. Mary Rowlandson makes note of the area in her book, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, written in 1682.
For Holschuh, however, the significance of the Great Bend, and the Elnu Abenaki’s relationship to it, is not only about the past. The Elnu are still among us. Their relationship to the land still exists here. It still exists now.
“I want to make this real with [Vernon and its visitors], and have them incorporate that into their story of themselves,” he said. “Rather than it just be, you know, tales of attack by vengeful savages.”
As Holschuh notes, several generations of new immigrants are recognized on the VY site and in Vernon, such as in names like Governor Hunt House. Yet, the people who inhabited this land for thousands of years prior to that colonization too often remain invisible.
How the future redevelopment of the VY site will acknowledge the Abenaki remains to be determined. One suggestion in the land inventory report is to construct an interpretive kiosk on the site.
Holschuh is hoping for an acknowledgement that is “more holistic and alive than that” and recognizes how subsequent generations have benefitted from the land and the Abenaki.
“Something in terms of an actual piece of land where a benefit culture can be understood in place and engaged with,” he added. “And I don’t know what that would look like because this is probably years out.”
During the state-level discussions before the Vermont Public Utility Commission (PUC) that oversaw Entergy’s sale to NorthStar, Holschuh joined the process as an intervener on behalf of the Abenaki.
“I felt that it was important given the location of the plant itself at the Great Bend that there be some sort of representation for Indigenous voice there, and to speak for the land and for what is in the land,” he said.
During the PUC process, Holschuh requested that a cultural resource survey be conducted on the site.
This type of survey — to investigate, acknowledge, and preserve sensitive cultural history — never happened prior to the plant’s construction in the 1960s, Holschuh said. The National Historic Preservation Act, a statute requiring such archeological investigation was established several years before construction started on VY. But “it was not being implemented, because it was so new. Nobody knew what to do with it and how to go about it. So, when VY was being built, nobody ever looked to see what was there,” he explained.
“And so, the reality is that there was probably a great deal of destruction that took place,” Holschuh continued. “But I wanted it on the record that that was the case. And that it be acknowledged that there was that that was an error of omission.”
Holschuh said he asked NorthStar to assess the site and assign a sensitivity index to inform future redevelopment.
The Antioch report contains such an index, which ranks areas of cultural interest or the existence of historic significance as high, medium, and low sensitivity. According to the report’s map, an area of high sensitivity follows the river bank, as does a larger area west of the plant’s built infrastructure.
Next, Holschuh asked that NorthStar hire a consultant to train employees what signs to look for when working on the VY site. So far, he said he has not heard of any cultural finds.
NorthStar has also offered to add an acknowledgement of the Abenaki’s relationship to the land that houses the plant to a sign at the front gate of the property, he said.
Holschuh said he views the land inventory report as opening a door between the Elnu and the town of Vernon. He hopes it can mark the start of an ongoing relationship.
“Vermont Yankees come and Vermont Yankees go — over a period of 50 years — and nuclear waste doesn’t go anywhere, yes, but the town of Vernon is there and has been there for a while,” he said. “So I want the town of Vernon to be equally aware, if not more so, of where they are situated.”
Going forward, the report recommends the continued gathering of information that should augment the report’s maps and help inform future redevelopment. It should also detail the decommissioning process in order to build a case study that can inform best practices for future decommissioning projects.
Community feedback should also be gathered to help update the town’s future development plans.
Langeveld stressed that the town has kept moving forward since the plant stopped generating power in 2014. The community has received a state village center designation, it has updated its walking trails, the Governor Hunt House — formerly part of the VY site — is being transitioned into a community center, he said.
Vernon has created a protocol for how to handle inquiries about the site. Langeveld said a few have already come in, and staff members are putting what they learn into a database, he said. Nothing is certain in this information-gathering phase.
“We’d rather have somebody lined up within the next few years that says yes, when NorthStar is ready to hand over the keys,” Langeveld said.
He added that the town is also applying for a federal Economic Development Administration grant as part of the Nuclear Closure Communities Fund in order to develop detailed site maps and potential use designs that would serve to market and attract new industry.
Despite NorthStar’s completion date of 2026, Langeveld said it’s never too early to start searching for Vernon’s future.
“Whatever’s next, it might be related to energy, it might not be,” Langeveld said. “But whatever’s next, the town wants to continue to see that site used for industrial purposes.”