Long-opposed nuclear reactor in Vermont shuts down

Jess Bidgood | New York Times

Supporters brace for income hit to town; longtime foes uneasy about its spent fuel. The nuclear reactor of the Vermont Yankee nuclear-power plant was shut down last week after operating for more than 40 years.

vt-yankee-shut-0106-art-g43vsslj-1vt-nuke-shutdown-2-jpgWhen the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant rose on a bank of the Connecticut River, in a region known more for farms and back-to-the-land communes, it was viewed by some as an economic adrenaline shot and by others as an incongruous curse on the land.

The 605-megawatt reactor, which powered up in the fall of 1972, brought high-paying jobs and expanded the tax base in a town with little industry. But it drew decades of protest from residents who feared a nuclear disaster in its bucolic environs and, during the past several years, a protracted effort by its home state to close it.

So, many in the region celebrated when, last week, the plant was taken off the grid and its nuclear reactor shut down. The plant’s parent company, Entergy, announced in 2013 that it would close the plant, saying it was no longer economically viable. But the shutdown left many in Vernon steeling themselves for a loss.

“It’s more than an end of an era,” said Patricia O’Donnell, the chairwoman of the Vernon Selectboard, who is grateful for the money, jobs and people the plant brought. “We’re losing our best friend.”

In a way, it was as if there were two Vermont Yankees: the one perceived as a nuclear threat and an affront to many in this deeply liberal state, and to the parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire that border it; and the other, viewed by many in Vernon as the kindly nuclear reactor next door.

“The closer you get to the plant, the more support you have for the plant, because we understand what the plant is,” said O’Donnell, who said 78 employees lived in Vernon. “We know the people that work there.”

Vernon is a verdant, sparsely populated, town of about 2,200, where farms are overlooked by wooded hills. Its eastern limit is the Connecticut River, which is also the line between Vermont and New Hampshire.

The best-known and most-photographed part of the structure is an enormous white-and-gray cube set off from its lush surroundings like a minimalist sculpture.

A study by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts estimated that the plant, which employs 550, contributed almost $500 million to the regional economy in 2014. That number, the study said, will fall to $13 million after 2020, and will drop further beyond that.

Later this month, once the plant has all of the fuel out of the reactor, its staffing will drop by about half, to 316. By April 2016, after the fuel has had time to cool, staffing will drop again to 127. When the spent-fuel pool is shut down and security personnel are needed only to monitor dry-cask storage, staffing will drop to about 50. Officials predict that will occur around 2020.

The effect will be somewhat diffuse because the plant’s employees are scattered about communities in three states close to the plant, in towns such as Brattleboro and Guilford in Vermont, and Chesterfield in New Hampshire. Entergy officials say they will try to relocate many of their employees to other plants the company owns.

“There’s going to be people filtering out, going elsewhere, because you just can’t replace the kind of income and jobs at Wal-Mart that this plant had,” said Ken Farabaugh, another Vernon resident and plant employee who will take early retirement when the plant closes and focus on an online furniture business.

O’Donnell said she would like to bring a natural-gas-fired power plant to Vernon. She said the plant’s value was assessed last year at $280 million, and that figure will decline.

The town tightened its belt last year by cutting about $500,000 from its budget, including eliminating its police department and instead contracting with the county sheriff.

The plant has stoked years of discontent among residents of the “evacuation zone” around the plant but not in Vernon proper. For some, it has been a source of looming unease.

“I get reminded every year when I get sent the battery for the emergency device, “and a wonderful calendar for the power company,” said Chris Hardee, a marketing consultant who lives in Chesterfield, just across the river from Vermont Yankee.

Hardee was working on his laptop at the food co-op in Brattleboro, the nearby town that has been fertile ground for anti-nuclear sentiment. To him and a friend at the co-op, Lisa Merton, the shutdown was welcome news.

“It could change life as we know it, and it still can,” Merton, 62, a filmmaker who lives in Marlboro, said of the plant. “It’s not a risk that’s worth taking.”

Entergy says it will cost $1.2 billion to decommission Vermont Yankee, but the company’s trust fund has about half that sum, so the full dismantling of the plant will not begin for decades. Meanwhile, the operators will turn to the mammoth task of cooling, storing and securing spent fuel.

Federal law requires the government to develop a long-term storage facility for nuclear waste, but no plan is in place. So the spent fuel at Vermont Yankee, like that at closed nuclear facilities across the country, will stay on-site. Officials say it will be safe.

The prospect of the plant’s future as a nuclear-storage facility worries many of the area’s activists, such as Clay Turnbull, the president of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, which is based in Brattleboro.

“It’s good that they’re not splitting atoms now, that’s very good, but we have 42 years of high-level waste that is far more dangerous if it were released to the environment than what would be in the reactor,” Turnbull said.

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