VERNON -- In terms of power production, Vermont Yankee officially has begun the march toward a shutdown.
Entergy Corp., which operates the Vernon nuclear facility, announced Tuesday that Yankee has started a "planned gradual reduction of plant energy output -- a so-called coast-down period."
But administrators also said there has not yet been any significant decrease in staffing, as the plant's "engineers and technicians continue to focus on safe plant operations as their highest priority."
Entergy announced more than a year ago that Vermont Yankee would cease producing power by the end of 2014. While there had been a long-running legal battle between the company and state officials who wanted the plant closed, an Entergy executive said Yankee would shut due to economic reasons including a "high cost structure" and low natural gas prices.
State and local officials have been working to brace for the impact of Vermont Yankee's closure, and Entergy has agreed to contribute millions toward economic development and renewable energy efforts locally.
But Tuesday's announcement marks an important, shutdown-related change in plant operations. Entergy said a coast-down period "typically occurs at the end of each 18 months of the plant's operating cycle."
The difference, of course, is that there will be no refueling this time.
"Reactor power level and associated electrical generation will gradually decrease during this period due to the depletion of the fuel in the reactor and will culminate with the plant shutdown targeted for late December," Entergy's statement says.
The announcement also said Vermont Yankee staff "will update the electric-grid dispatcher, ISO-New England, on the projected plant output. The updates will assist ISO-New England in its role of ensuring sufficient electrical-generating capability remains available on the New England grid."
"VY has reliably operated more than 500 days as a base-load plant during its final operating cycle," Chris Wamser, the plant's site vice president, said in a statement released by Entergy.
"During this period," administrators added, "it has provided more than 7.5 million megawatt-hours of electricity to the New England grid -- about 70 percent of the electricity generated in Vermont, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration."
Asked about Entergy's announcement on Tuesday, Vermont Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia noted that it is "an expected and normal part of the path toward shutdown at the end of December."
Even as Yankee begins to power down, the number of employees at the plant has declined by only a handful. In May, a spokesman said there were 575 people employed through Vermont Yankee; on Tuesday, Entergy spokesman Marty Cohn said there are 566 staffers.
"We have not had any official staffing reductions since the closure announcement," Cohn said. "There are people who have left on their own."
He reiterated the company's focus on safety, using the catch phrase "step up and finish strong."
"That's really been the operating philosophy of this company since the announcement," Cohn said.
The company also has instituted programs designed to keep its workers through the end of Yankee's operations.
"From the beginning, we've been talking to and keeping employees informed," Cohn said. "We've put into place a system where employees who stay through the closure get a certain severance package if they're not going to continue on in the SAFSTOR (decommissioning) organization."
There also have been internal efforts to find jobs for Yankee staffers who are leaving after shutdown. That includes job fairs as well as an "absorption program" that seeks to place employees at other Entergy plants.
"We've contacted all the facilities in our fleet," Cohn said. "For those people who want jobs in other plants, we've found jobs for them."
In other, recent, Yankee-related news:
-- Vernon Selectboard last week announced that Entergy has agreed to lease part of Governor Hunt House to the town for a possible information-technology business incubator.
Town officials are applying for a state economic-development grant to establish the incubator in the historic home, which Entergy owns and uses for corporate functions.
"It benefits, on a personal level, our Vernon residents who will be losing their jobs," Vernon Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said at a recent meeting. "Because they will have first priority for this IT center."
-- Though Yankee is heading toward shutdown, some permitting questions remain. Last week, the Connecticut River Watershed Council applauded some changes in a draft water-discharge permit that had been issued for the plant in July by the state Agency of Natural Resources.
However, the environmental group said some problems remain, including a lack of a requirement for closed-cycle cooling and a high-temperature limit set at 85 degrees -- "way above a fish-friendly level," river advocates said.
There also are concerns for the river's future, even after Vermont Yankee shuts down.
"We find that there are not sufficient study requirements monitoring long-term river response to the end of the thermal discharge once the plant stops generating power," Andrew Fisk, the watershed council's executive director, said in a statement. "What the river does to re-establish a natural regime after 40-plus years of thermal abuse would be instructive and informative for other decision-makers as they consider future hot-water discharges into the waters of America."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Follow him on Twitter @MikeReformer.