BRATTLEBORO -- Given Vermont’s bitter battles with Entergy Corp., it was no surprise that Gov. Peter Shumlin greeted news of Vermont Yankee’s pending closure with open arms.
"This is good news for Vermont. Entergy has made the right decision," the Democrat and Windham County native declared a few hours after the company announced that the Vernon plant would shut down by the end of next year.
But the governor, other state officials and Windham County’s legislators all acknowledged that many questions and concerns remain -- not just about the economic impacts of the plant’s closure, but also about the safety and financial implications of decommissioning a nuclear power plant.
"I think anybody who looked at this thoughtfully realized that closing the plant is not the last step. It’s the first step," said state Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane.
Shumlin, now in his second term, had made closing the plant a top political priority and was fond of saying Entergy could not be trusted. But he was quick to say on Tuesday that he had talked with Entergy executives about the pending shutdown and had a "very constructive conversation."
"What I really want to do is use this opportunity to build a better relationship with Entergy ... we’re going to work together on the common challenge that we have," Shumlin said during a morning news conference.
That challenge, first and foremost, is addressing the future of more than 600 people who work at the plant.
"My heart goes out to the hard-working employees and their families," Shumlin said.
He said his administration and the governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts have "pledged to work together with Entergy to ensure that those who are losing their jobs have a bright economic future right here."
State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, said that’s a laudable goal. But he also called for a reality check in the wake of Tuesday’s news. "You don’t replace 630 jobs," Hebert said. "It’s kind of a pipe dream to think you’re going to take these highly paid, highly trained people and retrain them."
Hebert, a longtime supporter of Vermont Yankee, said he does not believe the state has done enough to prepare for the plant’s closure. And he made reference to the state’s legal fight against Yankee’s continued operation, a fight that recently included a loss in federal appeals court.
"I guess he’s gotten his wish," Hebert said of Shumlin. "It’s the old thing, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’"
At the same time, Hebert added, "what matters now is, we have to move forward."
Hebert said he would invite the state House Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy -- on which he sits -- to meet here and discuss the area’s future without Yankee.
He also noted that the state will suffer direct financial losses when the plant ceases to exist.
"A significant amount of money goes into the (state) education fund from Vermont Yankee. What are we going to be doing to replace that?"
Hebert said. "For years, Vermont Yankee was the golden goose. We have to face reality. That’s done."
Other officials were more concerned about the realities of decommissioning the nuclear plant. There is $582 million in the state’s decommissioning fund, and some say that’s not nearly enough.
"I think there are so many unanswered questions," said state Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat. "What’s the economic impact (of decommissioning) going to be on the state?"
Marek said he worries that, if Entergy does not adequately fund that process, "It’s going to be our problem. We can’t get around that."
Shumlin was asked several times on Tuesday about the decommissioning fund and the state’s ability to influence that process. He pledged to work with Entergy, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state’s congressional delegation to ensure a smooth and relatively speedy transition.
But he offered no specifics.
"I’m not going to get too into the weeds on that, because I don’t think it’s fruitful," Shumlin said.
Christopher Recchia, commissioner of Vermont’s Public Service Department, said the money in the decommissioning fund is in large part dependent on the performance of investments and is overseen by federal regulators.
"Really, the NRC is in the driver’s seat on decommissioning," Recchia said, adding that state officials "will work closely with Entergy to try to come up with a mutually acceptable solution."
While there were many such pledges of cooperation on Tuesday, there’s also a question of whether the state’s legal entanglements with Entergy are over. At Tuesday’s press conference, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said he has not yet decided whether he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state’s recent appeals-court loss to Entergy.
"It’s not like it’s all over because they announced their intention to close," Sorrell said.
Also, officials pointed out that Yankee continues to operate without a certificate of public good from the state. That matter remains open, though the debate will take on a different tone after Tuesday’s announcement.
"They do still need a certificate of public good to run into 2014," Recchia said.
In spite of all of those questions, however, some officials who were long-term Vermont Yankee opponents echoed Shumlin in saying the decision to shut the plant is good for Vermont in the long term. Burke said the fact that Entergy cited economic factors in its decision to close the facility shows that state officials werecorrect in their concerns.
"I think this actually vindicates the Legislature," Burke said. "We were concerned about economic viability and reliability."
Marek said that, given those concerns, the closure announcement should not have been a "total surprise" to anyone.
"I think the predictions had been very clear that the plant was in jeopardy because of the economics," Marek said.
"I’m personally pleased to see it closing," he said. "That’s a perspective I’ve had ever since I’ve been in office and before that."
Ditto for state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat who said "we knew this was coming."
Mrowicki said both Windham County and Vermont have gone through numerous economic transformations. This, he said, is simply the latest challenge.
"We’ve weathered those storms, and we’ll weather this one, too," Mrowicki said.