How do we prevent economic meltdown?
With Vt. Yankee closing, UMass scholar studying transition recommends US gov’t step in to help region
It’s been 17 years since UMass economic development researcher John R. Mullin published his study on the Yankee Atomic plant’s closing and its impact on the region around Rowe.
Now, as the tri-state region looks at how to address the economic dislocation of the Vermont Yankee plant shutting down at the end of this year, Mullin is planning to update his report on the shuttered Rowe plant’s effect on the area’s economy, and a newly created Institute for Nuclear Host Communities is documenting how the Vernon, Vt., plant’s closing could impact the entire region.
Mullin, director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Economic Development, found that the Rowe shutdown affected not only the economy of the entire West County region, but community morale. He told the Franklin Regional Planning Board last week that the permanent shutdown is more than just the closing of another factory, because it involves a nuclear waste repository and often “brownfield” contamination, as well as stigma, all of which can affect redevelopment.
And while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission plays an exclusive role in overseeing the nuclear plant when it is operating, he said, the federal government plays no systemic role in helping the region’s economy recover once nuclear plants shut down. Together with the planning agencies in the three counties surrounding the plant, he is trying to make a case for the federal government to change its policy and deal with the impact of nuclear plant closings in a way similar to its Office of Economic Adjustment following closure of military bases.
It’s estimated that $300 million in economic activity will be lost in the decade after closing, institute co-founder Jennifer Stromsten told the board. Communities don’t anticipate nuclear plant closures, she said, even though they know that reactors have a limited life span. Windham County, Vt., which tried to prepare itself only a few years ago, is an exception, and a longer planning period would have been preferable.
Vermont Yankee’s closure, which led Vermont to negotiate an agreement with plant owners for $10 million to mitigate the local area’s economic impact, will cut Vernon town services, hurt organizations like the United Way and cost jobs in businesses and services that feed off the plant’s highly paid work force and its purchases, agreed Stromsten and Mullin.
Stromsten said there are valuable lessons from each plant closing experience that can help as succeeding communities — such as Pilgrim Station’s Plymouth region — grapple with the same difficult issue.
“There is tremendous potential to improve outcomes, to help communities use closure as an opportunity to create economic resilience that will create robust prosperity for decades,” she said.
The planning efforts go beyond simply calling for federal economic assistance for a transition to a future after Vermont Yankee, which employs about 600 workers — about 100 of whom live in Franklin County — with an average salary of more than $100,000. Instead, with an eye to 61 more nuclear plants scheduled for closure around the country by 2050, the effort aims for them to plan for post-shutdown strategies and to call for the federal government to help their communities brace for economic aftershock.
With most nuclear plants purposely sited in rural areas, many of them near rivers that form boundaries with other states, planning for profound economic impacts is made more difficult, Mullin and Stromsten said.
One prospective aid in the planning effort could come from the National Association of Development Organizations, which Franklin Regional Economic Development Specialist Jessica Atwood said has offered to help the COG as it works with the Windham Regional Commission in Vermont and the Southwest Regional Planning Commission in New Hampshire, together with the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. to analyze the three-county area of the three states.
Vermont Yankee’s impending closure could help the three neighboring counties to work together as they look at their sustainable master plans, their shared labor force and their similarities and differences to map out what the economic future could be, Atwood said.
Meanwhile, said Franklin Regional Planning Director Peggy Sloan, the efforts of looking back at the Yankee Atomic closure experience, as well as that of the region around Maine Yankee host community Wiscasset, Maine and Connecticut Yankee host Haddam, Conn., could help as Mullin and his team prepare a national conference next year to work on changing national policy.