Our opinion: In search of an antidote
There are a number of reasons to be concerned about what effects the closure of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant will have on the region. Studies conducted by the Windham Regional Commission, Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, and studies conducted for the Legislature and commissioned by Entergy, which owns the plant, have done an admirable job in outlining the economic impacts of the power plant in Vernon, and they are vast.
First and foremost, of course, is the loss of a major employer in Windham County, which provides jobs to more than 600 people who live in the tri-state region. Not only do those 600 people have career and life-changing decisions ahead of them, their $66 million in paychecks will no longer be spent at local businesses.
But it's not just about payroll; it's also about property taxes paid to the town of Vernon, which will have to make drastic cuts to its budget if it doesn't want to see an exorbitant rise in its tax rate. And then there are the intangibles, such as the effects the loss of 600 people and their families will have on our communities, the housing market and our schools and charities.
There is also reason to be concerned about how swiftly the site will be cleaned up and returned to as natural a space as is possible for a site that once was home to a nuclear power plant. While Entergy has indicated it will take advantage of the SAFSTOR option authorized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it doesn't necessarily mean it will take 60 years to decommission the plant. The trust fund set aside for remediation is relatively healthy, approaching $600 million, $20 million less than the NRC's minimum requirement (who knows where it would be today if not for the 2008 crash on Wall Street, after which it fell to $347 million). As noted on these pages a number of times, memoranda of agreement signed between the state and Entergy at the time the plant was sold require the site be cleaned up to a higher standard than that required by the federal government. Some studies have shown that cost could be $1 billion or more.
Currently, representatives from the state and Entergy are engaging in closed-door talks to discuss (we can only assume, because those talks are confidential) decommissioning costs and its timeline, a development fund to help soften the impact on the community, a demand by Entergy that the state pay it more than $4 million in legal fees for its successful lawsuit in federal court, the tax value of a plant that is no longer producing electricity, a tax imposed on the plant last year by the Legislature and the release of money Entergy has paid into escrow for the state's Clean Energy Development Fund.
Yes, they have a lot on their plate, but the tenor of the talks is welcome, considering the asperity between the two parties following the discovery of a leak of tritiated water from pipes engineers said didn't exist.
Both Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, and Bill Mohl, Entergy's president of wholesale commodities have told the media the conversations have been productive and have been marked by, if not an air of collegiality, at least a common understanding that both parties are going to work their hardest for their stakeholders.
While the challenges are immense, they are not insurmountable, and we have a few things going for us. Most notably is the human capital that is invested in insuring Windham County and the surrounding region regain the economic vibrancy that had been slipping away long before Entergy made its announcement that Vermont Yankee would be closing next year. Hundreds (dare we say thousands?) of people have spent countless hours, expended invaluable energy and burned the candle at both ends in understanding and proposing strategies to get us out of our economic decline. What we face with the closure of Yankee is nothing new to the region; it's just the latest blow to an economy that has been changing since the textile mills moved overseas. That sounds depressing, and it surely will be to many people, but the reality is, we are more well-positioned than other communities to roll with this punch and come out standing up.
Though some might argue that Vernon is a company town, Windham County has a more diverse economic base. There are manufacturers of everything from aerospace components to gluten-free dough. Its arts community is flourishing and two community colleges will soon be located in downtown Brattleboro. It has, by many measures, excellent schools with students and parents who are actively engaged in the system. And it has organizations that are dedicated to creating an economy that will benefit all who choose to live here.
Stephan Morse, the chairman of a task force commissioned by SeVEDS to explore what the closure of Yankee will mean to the region, said all the concerns are real, but there is real opportunity waiting for those bold enough to grab it and run with it.
"We've been a divisive community for years but now that that's behind us it may be a great time for the community to come together and work for economic recovery. With this issue resolved, and with a serious economic crisis facing us, it's in our best interests to work together to solve this."
And as Alex Wilson noted, writing for BuildingGreen.com, the closure of Yankee "could be a rallying point for a new, greener focus on regional economic development."
Wilson was a member of a SeVEDS task force focused on identifying and strengthening an emerging "green products and service industry cluster" for southeastern Vermont.
"The 2014 closure of the plant could provide key momentum toward sustainable economic development in the region," wrote Wilson. "It could also stimulate renewed discussion about the broader issues of power generation and centralized vs. distributed power production."
Morse and Wilson are just two of the intellectual heavyweights with real-world accomplishments who are dedicated to finding a solution that is unique to Windham County's economic conundrum. They are in good company with the other great minds that are not about to abandon the region just because Vermont Yankee is closing.
So while, yes, there are many reasons to be concerned, and not just about the plant's closing but also about the general economic health of the region, there are solutions. We're not saying it will be easy, but it's not hopeless either. It will take hard work and dedication to a cause we may not see fulfilled in our lifetimes, but it is a worthy task we need to shoulder.
As Joan Baez once noted, "Action is the antidote to despair."
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