• After Yankee
    September 22,2013

    The town of Vernon and the state of Vermont are only just beginning to prepare for the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant next year. The closing is a satisfying result for people who have long opposed the continued operation of the aging plant, but a report from Maine suggests that the future for Vermont, post-Yankee, will be far from easy.

    A Boston Globe reporter traveled to Wiscasset, Maine, where the Maine Yankee nuclear plant closed 17 years ago. He found that Wiscasset residents are still suffering the after-effects of the plant closing and that many regret the demise of the plant. The story is on Page B6 of this edition.

    For many years the closing of Vermont Yankee was the centerpiece of the political program of Gov. Peter Shumlin. He tapped into fears of environmental danger, as well as resentment of the irresponsible conduct of the corporate owner, Entergy Nuclear. He even played upon Vermonters’ regional biases, referring to the company as “Entergy Louisiana.”

    He also presented the closing of Yankee as part of a larger program of changes in Vermont’s energy sector. Closing the plant will cost the state more than 600 jobs, but Shumlin said the development of new energy technologies would offset those losses and lead to a new era of green energy.

    The experience of Wiscasset suggests those hopes may be overly optimistic. The hardship there has been real, and residents still have not recovered what they lost with the plant’s closing.

    The loss of property tax revenue in Wiscasset has left schools and town services seriously underfunded. Property taxes of one resident rose from $180 to more than $4,000. Sewer and utility service is no longer free. The population of the high school has fallen by half, and half of them are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches.

    Vermont’s education finance system will act as a buffer against the hardship that Vernon might have suffered. Property taxes, for education purposes, are levied on the basis of a statewide grand list. Thus, tax revenues from Vermont Yankee are now shared statewide, and the loss of those revenues will not fall on the shoulders of Vernon residents alone. But municipal services will no longer benefit as they have in the past from the revenue coming from Vermont Yankee. And per-pupil funding for Vermont’s students is likely to fall as people move away.

    In Wiscasset, Maine Yankee still provides about 10 percent of the town’s budget. It is no longer a working power plant, but it is taxable property with nuclear waste storage casks that must be maintained until the federal government builds a repository to accept nuclear waste. The same will be true in Vernon, which means that a new use for the Yankee property will be forestalled until the nuclear waste problem is solved.

    The loss of jobs hurt Wiscasset. People moved away. In Vermont there will likely be a negative ripple effect created by the loss of high-paying jobs, affecting the economies of three states. There will be some employment from maintenance and decommissioning of the plant, but it is not likely to match the level of employment when the plant was in full operation.

    State and local government can be expected to try to cushion the blow of those job losses, helping people find new jobs and steering development to Windham County. Southeastern Vermont could well benefit from the kind of economic development projects that now show promise in the Northeast Kingdom.

    It is true that we are entering a new energy era, and sustainable energy technologies are already creating jobs throughout Vermont. Companies involved in solar, wind and energy conservation have blossomed. But the concentrated losses in store for Windham County, like the losses in Maine (and in Rowe, Mass., where another nuclear plant closed), are likely to be painful.

    Shumlin and other opponents of Yankee have gotten what they wished for, and in some ways they may regret it. Yankee is not closing because of their opposition, of course. The economics of the industry, combined with Entergy’s unwillingness to invest in necessary improvements, has forced Entergy to make a hard-nosed economic decision about the profitability of nuclear power.

    Friends of Yankee may argue that opponents have made doing business too costly for nuclear plants, but the costs associated with safety and maintenance are not something that any nuclear company should be allowed to forego. The company’s lack of truthfulness and its mistakes made the need for strict oversight all the more important.

    The demise of Yankee was inevitable, but the state is facing the consequences sooner than expected. The history in Maine suggests the state will have many challenges ahead in helping Windham County cope with the changes in store.

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