After two weeks living under the threat by parent company Entergy Corporation of a full 10 percent in staffing cuts, workers at Vermont Yankee must be breathing a little easier now that they have learned that number to be just under 5 percent, or 30 positions. Could it have been worse? As reported in July, Entergy Vice President Terry Young explained shuttering Vermont Yankee or any of its nuclear power plants was never considered a cost-cutting option for the company. It's as if Entergy is afraid to even give voice to the thought, much less have a public discussion, of the possibility of closing the plant.
Of course they considered it. Financial prudence demands it. Just this January the Swiss financial services company UBS Securities released a rather grim report of Entergy's cash flow from its nuclear plant operations, downgrading its stock from "neutral" to "sell." A month later it predicted Entergy would retire one of its nuclear power plants in 2013 citing Vermont Yankee as "the most tenuously positioned plant."
According to Entergy, it needs to save between $200 and $250 million by 2016 with the elimination of 800 jobs companywide, though job cuts alone don't add up to this level of savings. The announced change in Vermont Yankee's contribution to this effort, from 10 percent to less than 5 percent of its workforce, represents a colossal turnaround in the company's projections in such a short time, especially given its rigorous operation and maintenance standards.
Yet to be elaborated upon by the company is its "Human Capital Management Initiative" which reportedly requires its employees to reapply for their jobs during the course of the company's workforce reduction. And, of course, there are those 30, or whatever the number turns out to be, who will lose their jobs while those remaining will necessarily need to pick up the slack, possibly at reduced pay.
Mr. Young's announcement of the impending workforce reduction must be a bit of an embarrassment for the company, coming on the heels of a rash of "false positives" for high radiation levels in monitors which Vermont Yankee spokesman Rob Williams stated, emphatically, "did not fail." A July 24 notice to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission attributed the "spurious spikes ... to an unknown source of electrical noise." The next day Mr. Williams attributed the problem to the monitors reacting to "wet and humid" conditions. Whatever the actual causes, the monitors were replaced. "That should reduce the chances for false signals," said Mr. Williams. We should hope so. As Vermont Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia points out, "What happens if there was actually a radiation leak and the equipment didn't register anything or didn't register the proper amount?"
More problematic for the company is that the announcement of a major impending workforce reduction comes on the heels of recently concluded Public Service Board hearings on Entergy Corporation's petition for a new Certificate of Public Good to continue operations beyond its now expired March 21, 2012 deadline. At no point during the hearings did Entergy inform the board of its "Human Capital Management Initiative." As pointed out by Geoff Commons, the director of public advocacy at the Vermont Public Service Department, a party to the hearings, "If this(the anticipated layoffs) was known(by Entergy) before the close of evidence, it does not reflect well upon Entergy's truthfulness."
With that in mind, it is with a large grain of salt one must take Entergy CEO Leo Denault's statement to the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding its reorganization. "The redesign process has been comprehensive, thoughtful and focused squarely on being fair to our employees throughout the process and being responsive to the needs of our customers, our employees, our communities and our owners."
Customers and owners aside, the "redesign process" promises to strain a workforce trying to cope with an aging plant in need of more attention, not less. And it promises to strain a community faced with an increasingly uncertain future. If Entergy is genuinely interested in the welfare of its employees and in the communities in which they reside, it will begin an open discussion now of the eventuality of transitioning from a power producing plant to the decommissioning of that plant, what that will entail, and how, exactly, the company will be responsive to the needs of its workers and the larger community.
Schuyler Gould is a building contractor from Barre and a member of the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance.