Conference considers economic fallout from shut nuke plant
PUTNEY, Vt. — The owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant should have put money into a separate economic development decommissioning fund, as well as its $622 million plant deconstruction fund.
That was a suggestion made Wednesday during a conference on how to cope with the socio-economic fallout from the upcoming closure of Vermont Yankee.
About 60 people from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts gathered at Landmark College to discuss the human ramifications of the closure, which is expected to cost hundreds of people their well-paying jobs and have significant ripple effects in the regional economy when Yankee closes in December.
Exactly how many people will still work at Yankee after December, when the plant stops generating power, no one seemed to know. But there was broad agreement at the meeting that the earlier the eventual decommissioning begins, the better for the economy in southern Vermont and its neighboring states.
“While this may be a blip on the screen for Massachusetts, it’s not a blip for Franklin County (Mass.), Windham County in Vermont or Cheshire County in New Hampshire,” said Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, pointing out that while the Vermont Yankee represents only 1 to 2 percent of Franklin County employment, it amounts to 5 or 6 percent of countywide income. More than 100 of Vermont Yankee’s workers, with an average salary of $100,000 or more, are from Franklin County.
Federal, state and regional governments are focused on the environmental and safety issues of nuclear plants while they’re operating, Dunlavy added, by planning for the economic consequences of closure — job loss and loss of income to surrounding communities — is an afterthought. With 100 nuclear plants eyed for closing around the nation by 2050, the three surrounding counties are looking at whether the federal government needs to play a role in helping communities — many of them in rural, interstate areas — plan for the economic impact of plant closure.
“We can be altruistic and think of helping other regions,” Dunlavy added, “but we need to be thinking more immediately and selfishly, ‘What are we going to do right now?’”
To that end, the agencies are trying to create an economic resiliency plan for the tri-county region that explores, among other things, whether strong economic clusters that already exist here can be strengthened by the highly trained expertise of Vermont Yankee workers who will be losing their jobs.
The conference — sponsored by the University of Massachusetts and the University of Vermont, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and the Association for Environmental Health and Sciences Foundation — drew many top-level officials, as well as local, regional and federal planners from the tri-state region.
Lawrence Miller, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Affairs, announced that the first $2 million check from Entergy Corp. — part of the settlement agreement and memorandum of agreement just approved by the Public Service Board last Friday — had arrived last night.
Miller’s agency will oversee the distribution of the Entergy funds for economic development, which is all earmarked for Windham County and is expected to be guided by a strategic plan already written by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. The recent agreement with the state requires Entergy to pay a total of $10 million for economic development in Windham County.
Miller said that groups and organizations will have to apply for the funds, and an emphasis will be given toward job creation.
The $10 million, which local development officials hope to use to “leverage” millions more of federal and state funding, and private investment, is either an enormous sum or a “drop in the bucket.” But none of the money is going to help New Hampshire or Massachusetts, where Yankee employees also live in about equal numbers.
The Canadian government is putting $200 million into economic development in a region hit hard by a nuke plant closing.
In sharp contrast, a Wisconsin community considered itself lucky getting $1 million in economic development help until it learned about the deal hammered out between Vermont and Entergy, said Jeffrey Lewis, one of the conference organizers and the retired head of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.
The conference, which was headed up by Lewis and UMass Professor John Mullin, also investigated the possibility of holding a national conference on the issue of socio-economic impacts of nuclear plant closings.
Mullin is the author of a well known study about the socio-economic impacts on the town of Rowe, Mass., after Yankee Rowe closed in 1992.
Yankee Rowe’s decommissioning, which started as soon as its fuel cooled, took 15 years and cost $608 million.
Lewis said that in the next 30 years, all of the existing nuclear plants in the United States will close, and the impact on their host communities will be great.
Stephan Morse, chairman of the Vermont Board of Education, and former Vermont House speaker, chaired an earlier post-Yankee study group. He made the suggestion that plant owners should put money into funds to help their host communities rebound from their closure.
He was quickly seconded by Michael Dworkin, a Vermont Law School professor and former chairman of the Public Service Board when it ruled on Entergy’s purchase of Vermont Yankee from its New England utility owners.
“Can I underscore that 17 times?” he said.
Dworkin summed up the goal of the conference as “‘What do we have?’ ‘What do we want?’ and ‘How do we get there?’”
Morse said the Windham County community still needs to “heal” from the years of rancor over Vermont Yankee.
Entergy’s announcement late last August took most people by surprise, but Patricia Moulton Powden, the current executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., and a former deputy secretary under Miller, said the region had already begun “after Yankee” economic planning.
In truth, Powden said, Windham County has lagged behind in jobs creation and wage growth, and the efforts were launched even before the economic hammer blow of Yankee’s closing.
Lewis and others at the meeting said the three-state region must turn the Yankee decision into a positive rather than a negative. He said the cost of decommissioning Yankee is estimated at roughly $1 billion, which itself is a big boost to the economy.