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Conference set to mull nuclear plant closings

National effort to gauge effects on communities, economies will take place in Putney

BRATTLEBORO—The issue of decommissioning has occupied many post-Vermont Yankee discussions since Entergy announced last summer that it would close its 40-year-old nuclear plant in Vernon.

Another group hopes to shift the focus of discussion to the long-term socioeconomic ramifications that result from plant closings.

As it develops strategies to help host communities gird themselves for closing a nuclear plant, the working group will hold a working meeting at Landmark College on Wednesday, April 2.

Members of the working group and invited attendees will start building an agenda for a larger, national conference on the socioeconomic effects of plant closings on host communities.

Invitees include professionals from economic development, regional planning, education, and federal and state governments.

Jeffrey Lewis, former executive director of the BDCC, and member of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS), said that the loss of human, intellectual, and economic capital that the Windham County region is bracing for when VY closes is unique to communities hosting nuclear plants.

Another aspect unique to nuclear plants is that they are built with the knowledge that the plant will eventually close. The plant workers, while often enthusiastic civic members, can feel more attached to the nuclear industry than to the town they work in, and typically leave with the plant.

Entergy employs approximately 650 workers at Vermont Yankee.

“A nuclear plant is oddly a temporary resident in a region,” Lewis said.

The idea for a national conference on building best practices for host communities when the local nuclear plant closes arose during the first “Voices Live!” event The Commons hosted last September at Brattleboro’s Hooker-Dunham Theater.

The panel discussion, “The Path Toward a Post-Nuclear Economy,” focused on retooling Windham County’s economy in the anticipated wake of Entergy closing its Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor.

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

During the evening’s discussion, University of Massachusetts at Amherst Professor John Mullin, Ph.D., raised the issue that host communities have little say in the decommissioning of nuclear reactors.

Instead, he said, most of the power rests with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the plant’s owner.

For host communities such as Vernon to have a voice, they can’t go it alone, Mullin said. He proposed that a national toolkit of best practices be created.

SeVEDS, part of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, had operated a post-VY task force to start preparing the region for VY’s closure. Lewis joined with Mullin to develop a national conference on the socioeconomic ramifications of nuclear plant closings.

Lewis said in an email that in preparing for the Landmark College meeting, he and Mullin found that nuclear plant closings are unique. The long-term impacts on the host communities often don’t mirror the closing of other industrial plants.

“There are no model practices or policies to follow for success,” wrote Lewis. “There is little consensus on effective strategies for economic recovery from a plant closure.”

Lewis added that little documentation for best practices exists in other countries with a nuclear fleet, suggesting a general lack of knowledge not singular to the United States.

Only a few New England communities, such as Rowe, Mass., and Wiscasset, Maine, have experienced a nuclear plant closing, wrote Lewis.

Over the next 20 years, however, the pace of plant closings will increase. Operating licenses of 64 of the country’s 100 plants expire by 2034. Some of these plants will have reached their 60th year of operation. The NRC mandates plants not operate beyond 60 years.

Adding to the issue, writes Lewis, many nuclear plants are sited in rural areas with small economies, and planning for a nuclear plant closing must happen years in advance to help a host region prepare for the loss of highly skilled workers — and their often higher-than-average wages compared to the rest of the host region.

Another factor unique to the closing of a nuclear plant identified by Lewis, Mullin, and other members of the working group: The site of the plant will have a “perpetual stigma” even after it has returned to greenfield status, they agreed.

The working group also found that the plant’s highly skilled employees are often imported to the region rather than “locally grown,” and many leave the area when the plant closes.

Nuclear plants are often surrounded by controversy that can impede planning for the future. Decommissioning practices are specific to each plant and each closing will restart the “best practices” discussion and draw attention away from social impacts.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #246 (Wednesday, March 19, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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