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Creating a new and transparent process

Could a national conference on post-nuclear communities help Vernon deal with the closure of Vermont Yankee?

BRATTLEBORO—Entergy Corp’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon is slated to close by the end of 2014.

Indeed, a number of nuclear plant operators have announced they will shut their aging reactors within the next few years, and 18 reactors already closed are being decommissioned.

The regulatory, community, environmental, and economic mises en scène in which these plants’ reactors whirled to life in the 1960s and 1970s differ greatly from the arenas packed with spent fuel — and nowhere to put it — that nuclear plants now inhabit.

And what about these plants’ host communities?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy will consider radiological safety during decommissioning, said Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission.

But, he added, there are many other decommissioning issues affecting a plant’s host area which federal regulations don’t consider.

Entergy owns and operates Vermont Yankee’s 650-megawatt boiling water reactor, which started operating in 1972. The plant employs about 630 people who reside in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Rather than sit and wait, some have started floating a national conference on post-nuclear communities, nuclear plant decommissioning, and storage of nuclear waste. The conference’s goal might be to create new federal policies on decommissioning that better support local communities.

The idea sparked from discussions among panelists during the inaugural presentation of “Voices Live!: The Path Toward a Post-Nuclear Economy,” presented by The Commons at the Hooker-Dunham Theater on Sept. 18.

[Note: This reporter was one of the panelists.]

The conference suggestion was first voiced by John R. Mullin, professor of urban planning in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, and associate director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The country would better serve local communities if it prepared for decommissioning a nuclear plant as it does in closing military bases, said Mullin, who has already helped communities nationwide plan for “soft landings” around some 50 base closures.

He also completed an assessment of the economic impact of the closing of Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts.

Mullin and panelist Patricia Moulton Powden have scheduled a preliminary meeting to start planning the conference.

Moulton Powden is director of workforce development for Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. She is set to become executive director of BDCC in January.

Vermont has often served as a laboratory for new policies, said Moulton Powden during an informal pre-panel conversation. She asked rhetorically, Why not use Vermont’s willingness to test new ideas to form a national policy on plant decommissioning?

Transparency and a level playing field

“There’s a lot of work to be done ahead of time,” said Mullin of organizing a national conference.

He said he hopes the University of Vermont would agree to sponsor the event. Failing that, he said, UMass would be more than happy to step in.

The closing and decommissioning of nuclear plants screams for more transparency, Mullin said, adding that there needs to be a better understanding of what the federal government, state regulators, communities, and plant owners are willing to do to support the process.

During plant closures, people naturally desire knowledge of options, decision making, and an understanding of how the process will play out, said Mullin. Without a transparent process, people will naturally rely on gossip or speculation.

Mullin said he would like to ask the state of Vermont what it’s prepared to do in support of the region and Vernon post-VY.

During the closure of Yankee Rowe, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seemed to remain quiet, which was a concern for Mullin.

Mullin said he understands the view of some Vermont lawmakers who feel the state doesn’t aid communities when other industries, such as IBM in Chittenden County, lay off workers and close their plants.

But, he argues, nuclear plants come with a unique bundle of long-term implications compared with other industries.

Nuclear plants leave a legacy of environmental questions, limited future use of the former site, and the likely long-term onsite storage of nuclear waste, Mullin explained.

In contrast with other businesses, the nuclear industry requires experts with highly specialized expertise, he said, adding that the federal government’s oversight in this arena is more rigorous than it is with other industries.

Mullin said he would like to see the state or Entergy pay for a professional project manager to advocate on Vernon’s behalf during decommissioning.

According to Mullin, Massachusetts rules require that the state or an individual municipality hire such a professional to advocate on behalf of the local community during large development projects.

Entergy will have its professionals advocating on its behalf as the plant closes. The region will have municipal volunteers — selectboard members, regional commissioners, committee members — working on its behalf, Mullin said.

That’s hardly a level playing field, he observed.

Leaving a legacy and footing the bill

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, agreed there needs to be a better national policy on the closing of nuclear plants and ensuring the host community has a voice.

He suggested the nation consider the legacy nuclear plants leave behind when lending communities support or performing federal oversight.

“It’s in the interest of the nation to think this through,” he said.

Campany said he agrees that Mullin’s model of a base closing works well for rethinking nuclear reactor closures. Base closings demonstrate planning and an orderly shut-down and redevelopment.

According to Campany, five nuclear plants have announced they’re closing this year. More will likely close within the next few years.

He said he would like to see participation from organizations bringing a broad view and structures supporting research, policy development, and fiscal management.

He suggested inviting the National Association of Development Organizations (which supports local development organization and regional commissions) or the National Organization of Counties, in addition to the NRC, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should be at the table, said Campany, as older plants likely contain hazardous building materials such as PCBs and dioxin.

Nuclear plants and the storage of waste “exist in a different reality” than the one in which they were constructed, he said, explaining that NRC rules don’t consider spent fuel, maintenance, greenfield restoration, or economic redevelopment.

Campany said he worries about who will fund decommissioning and spent-fuel storage over the long term if the original operator, in this case Entergy, goes bankrupt.

The decommissioning fund is finite, said Campany.

According to Campany, Entergy has not added any money to the fund since purchasing VY in 2002. Any growth in the fund has come through investment income.

Campany sees the limited nature of the decommissioning fund as another reason for immediate decommissioning, in contrast with the alternative: mothballing the plant for 20 to 60 years.

Campany said that solutions would come through negotiation with Entergy, not litigation against it.

Little towns facing big questions

Panelist Raymond Shadis, technical advisor to the New England Coalition, remarked that it was striking that all the panelists raised concerns for the environment, and indeed that the event wrestled with deeper issues than he expected of it.

Shadis said another panelist’s comment, that of Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, who said he didn’t want his great-grandchildren to have to deal with the plant’s decommissioning, was “poetic and profound.”

“There’s very little that a local development group or regional commission can do about money and jobs,” said Shadis about the bigger arena that nuclear plants operate within.

Shadis said he regretted he didn’t arrive with more statistics on the post-Maine Yankee economy in Wiscasset, Maine. In his opinion, that town did not suffer the long-term, deep economic issues as people feared when the plant closed in 1997.

“A little practice quickly does away with a whole lot of theory,” he said.

He noted that although property taxes have increased in Wiscasset (population 3,732 as of the 2010 census) absent the buffer of Maine Yankee’s tax contributions, they’ve remained relatively moderate.

Shadis stressed that the NRC will soon issue a ruling over the commission’s waste confidence rule as required by a federal court.

Essentially, the debate is over the risk in storing spent nuclear fuel long-term in the plants’ spent fuel pools against moving the fuel rods to dry-cask storage.

Shadis took issue with the NRC on its contention that there’s no net gain in safety between the two options.

Vermont Yankee’s spent-fuel pool is suspended above the reactor, which is an increased risk factor in general, he said.

Moreover, should a spent-fuel pool lose its cooling water, a fire can start and spread through the pool. In contrast, dry casks hold less spent fuel, lowering the magnitude of an accident such as a fire.

But, like its decision to close VY, which Entergy attributes to a downturn in natural gas prices and other economic factors, the company may find that it costs less to maintain dry cask storage over maintaining the spent-fuel pool, Shadis said.

In the case of Maine Yankee, the company found a break-even point with long-term storage, Shadis said. After 10 years, dry-cask storage cost less than maintaining storage in the spent-fuel pool.

If Entergy is planning a Safestor enclosure for 20 to 60 years, than Shadis views maintaining the spent-fuel pool as a bad business decision.

Shadis said he was less enthusiastic about the prospect of a national conference held in the region, asking, “Who will care about our little town?”

Panelist Mike Hebert of Vernon, who represents VY’s hometown in the Vermont state legislature, said that, overall, Vernon is in limbo over this issue, and will be in “wait and see mode” for a couple of months.

Vernon officials are scheduled to meet with Entergy reps soon, he said, noting the corporation appears to be cooperative.

“They’ll work with us, but I’m not sure about the decommissioning,” Hebert said.

Hebert said Entergy officials have told them they want to leave Vermont with their heads held high and on good standing with the local community.

Tax stabilization, along with what will happen with the historic Governor Hunt House and the other buildings Entergy owns on Governor Hunt Road, are some of the town’s concerns, he said.

He backs the idea of a national conference.

“Conversation never really hurts,” he said.

On the right track, but more to do

“I felt a little better” after the panel discussion, Moulton Powden said. “Even though we have a big job on our hands.”

The panel discussion confirmed for Moulton Powden that BDCC and SeVEDS are on the right track with their economic plans and strategies.

She added that developing an economic strategy that includes everyone and builds a diverse and well-rounded economy has “always been the intent and expectation.”

Not much about the Sept. 18 panel discussion surprised Moulton Powden, but she did take away the feeling of energy in the audience’s concern about DECON versus SAFSTOR.

This region is not a carbon copy of Wiscasset or Rowe, she said. But, actions must happen that ensure Windham County is not left with the same post-nuclear plant reality.

One plus is the region has good state and regional support, which she feels is critical to a healthy post-VY community.

Moulton Powden said she will focus on keeping the VY workforce in the region.

An “unfortunate level of unsympathy” still exists for the VY employees in the community, she said, adding that just because people don’t like an employer doesn’t mean they should throw their empathy out with the bathwater.

Still, she said, she expects the anxiety expressed by many audience members will not abate until Entergy speaks to its technical plans to shutter the plant.

Moulton Powden also heard concern from audience members which she interpreted as, “How do we make sure we’re not left holding [Entergy’s] bag?”

People view Entergy as untrustworthy; they feel powerless in the face of federal regulations, and they feel they have no voice in the process, she said.

This is partly why Mullin’s idea to change thinking about nuclear plant decommissioning at the federal level resonated with Moulton Powden.

The federal government needs a new process, she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #222 (Wednesday, September 25, 2013).

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