BRATTLEBORO -- The decommissioning of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant will surely be an economic blow to the tri-state region, but a group of people who met at Landmark College on April 2 prefer to think of it as an opportunity.

"How can we use this moment for change and growth in the region?" asked Jeff Lewis, who, with John Mullin, organized the day-long forum.

More than 50 people attended "Nuclear Power Plants: Socioeconomic Impacts of Closure" and broke up into working groups to discuss the impacts on a community of closing a nuclear facility.

"It was a good conversation," said Lewis, a former executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. "But the general theme was we don't know enough about what these things do to the community."

Invitees included former commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, state officials, regional planners and economic strategists.

"If you don't start the conversation about the impact on the community, then the conversation about decommissioning itself will take over the discussion," said Lewis, and the region has more to worry about than just what happens at the site in Vernon after Yankee ceases operation.

In August 2013, Entergy announced it would be ceasing operations of its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon at the end of 2014.

The community around Vermont Yankee is not the first to deal with decommissioning, said Peter Bradford, a Peru resident and former NRC commissioner.

"But what nobody has done very meaningfully before is try to do it within a framework that is systematically common to all decommissioning and make that learning available to everyone. Certainly the idea of taking a more systematic look at the challenges of decommissioning is laudable. But it's a long step from this first meeting to making a difference."

That was one of the main points of the meeting, said Lewis, to begin a national discussion so that communities that host one of the 102 nuclear power plants that will eventually close have each other to rely upon.

"Somebody has to lead the way in terms of strategic development, best practices and policy interaction at the federal level," said Lewis. "It might as well be us. We're ahead of the game. This is an entrepreneurial opportunity for this area."

"It's interesting to take a local situation and see how it might help the other communities who are facing a similar situation," said Stephan Morse, the chairman of the Post Vermont Yankee Task Force established by the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies. "I'm not really sure it's going to work."

Nevertheless, said Morse, he feels Windham County and the tri-state region are better positioned than other communities that have been subject to power plant closures. Vermont already has an agreement in place that will bring more than $12 million in economic development funds to Windham County

"We are going to be better prepared than anyone," said Morse. "There are still a lot of questions about what will work and what won't, but it's encouraging."

SeVEDS recently unveiled its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, which might help guide how the $12 million Windham County is getting will be disbursed.

Laura Sibilia, the director of economic development at BDCC, said it was enlightening to learn about the gap between federal policy and what communities actually experience when a nuclear power plant is shut down. But she said the plan that was developed by SeVEDS could help the region's planners mitigate the impact.

"And we are potentially helping to drive best practices for other communities," she said.

"With so many plants coming offline close to each other, there needs to be a national conversation about this," said Chris Campany, the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission. That includes whether the federal government should rewrite its policies and regulations, he said. "All the precedents we have to look at are public utilities and you could pass decommissioning costs on to ratepayers. I don't know that when the rules were written we even had merchant plants such as Vermont Yankee."

Campany said the tri-state region is on the leading edge because it has a number of people putting a fair amount of thought into what will happen after Yankee closes.

"Ideally, there would have been a lot more emphasis on economic development and planning, but if this is the impetus that gets the ball rolling, that's great."

Lawrence Miller, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said he was impressed by the knowledge the participants brought to the April 2 forum.

"It had a good collection of people interested in the broader global issues around the challenges that all communities face eventually," said Miller. "And the tactic of doing something in Windham County that attracts people from around the country is good one. We could get a lot of good positive participation from other perspectives in the beginning of our process and do something useful for other communities."

Tim Murphy, the executive director of the Southwest Region Planning Commission in Keene, N.H., said the forum was a good opportunity to discuss the ramifications of lost jobs, the decrease in donations to non-profit organizations and the impact on real estate values.

"And then there are the harder-to-quantify issues, such as the civic engagement of the employees at Yankee," he said.

Danielle Southwell, the assistant director of Youth Services of Brattleboro, was invited to the forum to give her impression of how the closure would affect the region's many non-profit organizations that receive support, both financially and through volunteers, from Vermont Yankee.

"With nonprofits losing that kind of money and support, we potentially will have more vulnerable people in our community who won't get the services they need," she said.

Despite the uncertainty, said Southwell, by grappling with the issue now, Windham County and the region can be a leader in addressing issues common to communities losing nuclear power plants.

"We are starting to develop a model that could be applied across many other communities."

Lewis said he and Mullin hope to host a convention in 2015 and bring in people from the 65 towns in the United States that host the 102 reactors.

"We will see a landslide of closures in the next 30 years," Lewis said during the forum.

Lissa Weinmann, an expert on the socio-economic implications of national energy strategies and nuclear power and nuclear waste management, said the closure of Yankee could lead to an identity crisis of sorts; communities need to realize that when their power plants close and the sites are cleaned up, all that will remain is tons of nuclear waste.

"The Department of Energy estimates waste will be on site for at least 50 years. People have to come to grips with the fact that they are no long a nuclear generator but a nuclear waste repository."

She said the April 2 forum was "absolutely on the right track."

"State and local leaders need to get together and understand the regulatory and legislative framework. It is time for a national change on nuclear policy and we are on the forefront of that. The old laws don't work."

Campany said he was happy to see people from all over the tri-state region at the forum.

"That's one of the best things to come out of this. Hopefully we can collaborate and not just in response to Vermont Yankee," he said. "We can work on other issues in common such as transportation, energy and emergency planning."

Weinmann said there are a lot of issues leaders in the tri-state region can address, but "We can't go it alone. We need to form relationships with other reactor communities and act as a national unit. If we stop walking around with our tails between our legs and acting like this is a threat to our community we can realize it's actually an opportunity to deal with this responsibly."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.