Last week, the energy company Entergy announced that it will shut down Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant at the end of next year, saying it was no longer economically feasible to keep operating the plant. But the story is just beginning. The closure could take decades and deal a major blow to the economy of Vernon and surrounding communities.
Consider this example: five years ago, a nuclear power plant in western Massachusetts, Yankee Rowe, was finally fully decommissioned. The entire process took 15 years and cost more than $600 million. The closing of Vermont Yankee could take just as long and cost as much.
To better understand the economic ripple effects of closing Vermont Yankee, WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with John Mullin, who teaches urban planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has studied how the closing of Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant affected the community of Rowe.
John Mullin: It provided jobs during the decommissioning time, but it was almost like the erosion of an economy with 1,000 slow cuts. As the plant moved from full operational capacity down to just being a shell, it was less and a less and less. So I think that Rowe probably in the beginning did ok, but as the years passed it was less and less of a positive impact.
Sacha Pfeiffer: And besides the jobs lost at the plant, I imagine there's a trickle-down economic effect of people not buying lunches in the area, not shopping in the area.
Very much so. These are well-paying jobs, and similarly with Yankee in Vermont. And there are very few of those good jobs at that scale in Franklin county, Massachusetts, or Windham county, Vermont. And when these go, it's going to take a long time to replace them and there is not a market for them right now in either place. So that impact is huge. Yankee Rowe and, I expect, Yankee Vermont, had a local purchase policy. And there, anything that they could buy in the community — in Vernon or in the county — they would do.
So that was a real economic booster for the area.
Yes. And I think your point's well taken that that trickle-down ever so slowly will impact corner store markets and colliers and hardware stores and things of that ilk.
In fact, you've talked and written before about what you call the "community stigma" that comes with these shutdowns. Is that stigma what you just described, and other impacts?
No. The stigma's going to be a little bit different. The way that we look at that — and I'll ask it as if you were moving into the area — is, 'Would you want to be living within the shadow of a nuke?' We're going to find that the property values will fall, there will be a disinvestment around the nuke, and that stigma's going to be there for a long while, particularly because if you're going to bury the rods, people are really going to have the feeling that those things are there. And it's not the same as a brownfield where there's chemical contamination and you can clean them up, or a military base where you can come back and convert to other uses. As long as there's anything related to the nuclear power on that site, people are going to try and stay away.
That nuke issue, of course, deals with the spent nuclear fuel, which is stored in concrete or steel. And that can be there a very long after a shutdown. Have you found in your studies that when tax revenues take a hit and property values decline after a nuclear plant shutdown — does it take a long time for those to bounce back?
Yes, very much so. And that, indeed, the big thing is that the tax base has eroded and you're not going to get that back. And so that you have to find new ways of funding your community. In the case of Rowe, Yankee was a good provider of revenue. And when that left, the impacts were quite severe in the community.
After the Yankee Rowe closure, some of those workers were transferred to Vermont Yankee. So if some of them are still there, they could be soon out of jobs again for the same reason.
That's true. But those workers have great skills and they are re-employable in other nuclear power plants or in the nuclear energy fields. I think as long as they're willing to travel, they're not going to be the ones who suffer. It's going to be the secondary-impact people that are going to be most greatly harmed.
Travel may mean move to another state?
Move to another state, yes.
Professor Mullin, what do you think is the biggest lesson learned from the Yankee Rowe shutdown experience?
The inability of all parties to have an exit strategy that aids the community. Nobody ever really thought that we would have rods buried for decades on the site, and as long as that's there, there's going to be that stigma. So I think that was a big mistake and it's a message that everyone that has a nuke should think about: what's going to happen in a post-operational time?
Do you have any sense of whether Vermont Yankee will do that better than Yankee Rowe has?
Oh, I think so. I think there's enough evidence out there now that says that we have to do that.
Is there anything Vermont can or should be doing during the decommissioning process to try to mitigate these economic negative impacts?
Yes. In fact, it should begin now in developing an economic development strategy for the region. And I do believe that right now southern Vermont is going through this. And I think that they're looking to the United States Economic Development Administration for grants and infrastructure assistance in terms of the post-nuke period. And so the planning phase should be started now. And then to look at alternatives to the nukes in terms of a jobs strategy.
This segment aired on September 5, 2013.