VERNON -- The state's decommissioning agreement with the owner of Vermont Yankee, announced just before Christmas, seemed to tie up a lot of loose ends regarding the Vernon nuclear plant's scheduled demise.
But Vernon officials and residents are debating whether to follow a Maine town's example in setting up a local panel to advise on the nuclear plant's closure and cleanup.
While there was some initial disagreement about such a panel's role at a meeting in Vernon this week, officials agreed that there is a need for more public education to prepare for Yankee's shutdown.
"For me, personally, I'd love a way to educate the people in our town as to what's going on and how the process is going to work," said Vernon Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell.
With Vermont Yankee -- which makes up about half the town's tax base -- scheduled to shut by the end of this year, Vernon officials have sought budget information from other area municipalities in order to better assess the town's spending and staffing.
Vernon leaders also expect to seek advice from other towns that have worked through nuclear-plant shutdowns.
And in that respect, Vernon residents Dale Gassett and David Webb believe they have found a model for community participation in such a process.
In 1997, the Maine Yankee nuclear plant closed in Wiscasset, Maine. Plant administrators and local officials reacted by forming a Maine Yankee Community Advisory Panel (CAP) on Decommissioning.
The purpose of that group, according to a report issued by the panel, was to "enhance open communication, public involvement and education on Maine Yankee decommissioning issues."
Questions in Maine mirrored many questions about the future of the Vermont Yankee site -- including, for instance, property redevelopment and the disposition of spent nuclear fuel. But members of the Maine community advisory panel decided such issues were "outside the scope" of their charter.
Instead, panel members "made a conscious decision that their role would remain focused on the nuts and bolts of the decommissioning," the group's report says.
Whether such a strategy would work in Vernon is up for debate.
That's in part because the circumstances of the two plants' closures are different. But it's also because Vermont officials last month announced a deal with Yankee owner Entergy that resolved pending legal issues while paving the way for a possible state certificate of public good allowing the plant to operate through year's end.
Also included in the agreement are guidelines intended to speed the Vermont Yankee decommissioning process and a pledge by Entergy to move spent fuel to dry-cask storage.
And Entergy committed to significant payments -- $10 million for economic development in Windham County; $5.2 million for clean-energy development, at least half of which is to be used for projects in or benefiting Windham County; a "transitional" $5 million payment to the state; and $25 million for a new fund to ensure site restoration.
Vernon officials this week expressed some consternation that they were not included in the state's Yankee talks, given that the town hosts the plant.
"Frankly, reading the news, it was a little disappointing that Vernon was not at all represented ... this happened up in Montpelier," Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee said.
O'Donnell said there is a sense that the state "one-upped" Vernon in striking the deal with Entergy. For that reason, she wondered about the need for a community advisory panel in Vernon.
"It's almost like it's taken off of our plate -- like we don't have any control over it," she said.
Selectboard members said they expect Vernon to have some say in how Entergy's funding commitments for economic development and clean energy are spent in Windham County.
"I certainly think we need to have representation in those organizations. We have to do it," O'Donnell said. "Because, otherwise, that money's going to get spent and Vernon's not going to be part of the process."
But officials don't think a possible community advisory panel should be involved in such financial matters.
"I think there is some misinformation out there that the CAP would stick its nose in the financial affairs and negotiations, which is completely false," Gassett said.
He and Webb are members of Vernon Planning Commission, but they said the commission does not have an official position on a CAP. Instead, they approached the Selectboard as residents who think a community advisory process is important during Vermont Yankee's decommissioning.
"There is a place for a CAP, and I really believe that it would be helpful in serving the community," Gassett said.
A Vernon CAP's primary function, he says, might be to distribute timely, accurate information about what's happening at the plant.
"The average person ... has no idea about what's going to transpire," Gassett said, adding that, "I guess I see the CAP more as a model for information dissemination."
Selectboard members liked that concept.
"The better-educated our community members are about the decommissioning process and the time frame and so forth ... the more positive input they would be able to provide in directing our community's future," Dunklee said.
If a Vernon CAP is formed, however, there also is a question of who should serve on it.
In Maine, the 13-member panel combined governmental, environmental and business interests, with significant input from Maine Yankee. The panel's chairwoman was a state senator; its vice chairman was the president of a nonprofit environmental-education institution.
Vernon officials said there is a need for diversity on any local advisory panel. But they also acknowledged the sharp divide in public opinion regarding Vermont Yankee.
"You're either for it or against it. And there's got to be a way to bring people to the middle," Gassett said.
O'Donnell responded by saying consensus is possible "if we carefully pick the people" involved in the panel.
"There are people who you're going to put together and they're never going to agree no matter what," she said. "If it's raining out, they're going to disagree as to whether or not it's raining out."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.