Report offers 'lessons learned' from Vermont Yankee


BRATTLEBORO >> Early in a new report on Vermont Yankee's shutdown, Windham Region officials 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 may face a loss of jobs, tax revenue and residents due to a nuclear shutdown.

The report was released on Friday 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.

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 three counties hosted the majority of Vermont Yankee employees, who numbered about 550 just prior to shutdown.

Now, the tri-state counties have teamed up to produce a report titled "When People and Money Leave (and the Plant Stays) – Lessons Learned from the Closure of the Vermont Yankee Power Station: A Tri-Region Experience."

In Windham County, 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 other conversations among the counties, was lauded repeatedly at Friday's 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 may 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."

But the report – which was produced with funding from the Economic Development Administration and BDCC – mostly focuses 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.'"

Key points from the report include:

• Many of the "lessons learned" preach comprehensive planning – as much of it as possible, and as early as possible.

For example, though Vermont Yankee was always controversial, Windham Regional Commission stayed involved in plant proceedings over the years from a "neutral position so it could promote conversation among all sides," officials wrote.

Also, the report notes that the Windham Region's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy was developed "with the assumption that VY would, at some point, close."

Though such conversations may be difficult to have when a nuclear plant has not yet been scheduled for closure, they are vitally important, officials say.

• Thorough planning and study should lead, the report says, to an in-depth understanding of a nuclear plant's role in a community.

The report notes the high salaries associated with a nuclear plant: The average Vermont Yankee staffer earned about $105,000 annually, "which is two and a half times greater than the average pay in the region," officials wrote.

They also offer sobering advice about efforts to retain former nuclear workers. Many will be recruited to work and live elsewhere, the report says, and replacing a region's lost wages "will likely require more jobs at a lower wage level."

The report also notes that "there is a need to look beyond employment and income to also understand the role of employees, spouses and children in the community and civic life." One Vermont Yankee example is the big drop in charitable contributions in the Windham Region since the plant shut down.

• Such studies, however, come at a cost. The report warns that "there is no dedicated funding stream to assist communities with the economic impact mitigation of nuclear plant closures. You'll need to piece together other federal, state and local resources."

In some cases, a local organization simply has to bear the burden. Windham Regional officials write that they've spent "more than $125,000 in staff time on critical decommissioning-related work and regional plan policy advocacy between 2009 and 2016 with no dedicated funding source."

"That's other work we're not able to spend time on," Campany said.

In addition to those 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 Friday's 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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