Vermont Yankee family faces uncertain futureBill Gnade / Sentinel Staff
The Twarogs discuss their life in Keene, N.H., and what they will have to give up once Vermont Yankee closes. Cheryl Twarog had the sign in front made to show the family’s support for Vermont Yankee and nuclear energy. She brought the sign to a Vermont Public Service Board meeting about the plant.
KEENE, N.H. — John R. Twarog works at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
Aug. 27 was his day off from work. While he was at his Keene home that morning, he was unaware that the plant’s owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., had called an employee meeting to announce it would close the Vernon, Vt., power plant by the end of 2014. Company officials said it was no longer financially viable to continue operating the facility.
Around midmorning, Twarog’s wife, Cheryl, was on the family’s computer when she saw a breaking news headline about Vermont Yankee closing. She immediately told her husband.
“We felt like the wind was knocked out of us,” Cheryl F. Twarog, 46, said.
John Twarog, 46, is one of 623 people who work at Vermont Yankee, and one of 210 of those employees who live in New Hampshire, according to an August 2012 Entergy filing with the Vermont Public Service Board. He is also one of 46 of those 210 New Hampshire residents who live in Keene.
John Twarog, a shift manager in the plant’s operation department, said he still has a job, but after the plant shuts down, he’s not sure what will happen.
“It’s a big piece of the discussion at work,” he said.
Company officials are doing their best to keep employees informed about the shutdown and subsequent decommissioning process, but there are still many unknowns, he said.
Those unknowns include the time lines for the plant’s defueling and decommissioning after the facility’s current fuel cycle ends in October or November of next year. They also include what jobs will be available after the plant shuts down.
One thing John Twarog does know is that he will eventually have to move out of the area to continue working in the nuclear power industry.
“The nuclear field is a very specialized field, and my skill set is very particular. I run a nuclear power plant,” he said.
According to a plan the Windham Regional Commission prepared for Vernon, Vt., about Vermont Yankee closing, people who work in the nuclear industry have unique skills and security clearances. They also have among the highest-paying jobs in the region.
Vermont Yankee paid its employees an average wage of $103,777 in 2006, the plan states.
Upon learning of Entergy’s plans to close Vermont Yankee, one of the first things the Twarogs thought about was how to break the news to their two sons, Evan, 16, and Cameron, 13, who had just begun another school year.
The Twarogs moved to Keene from Virginia Beach, Va., in 1999 when Evan was 2 years old, and have since become established in the city. They have invested in their Ridgewood Avenue home and have volunteered in the Keene community. Evan J. Twarog, who is a junior at Keene High School, is involved in Interact and is a member of the school’s Nordic team. He plays the clarinet in the Nelson Town Band and the Keene Chamber Orchestra. After graduating from high school, he hopes to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
His brother, Cameron, an eighth-grader at Keene Middle School, plays the violin in the Keene Chamber Orchestra, and in a chamber group that is associated with the orchestra.
Cheryl Twarog worries if her sons will have the same opportunities in whatever community the family moves to as they did in Keene, she said.
She is also concerned about the family possibly having to split up for some time, she said.
While the Twarogs have worried for years about Vermont Yankee shutting down, the timing of Entergy’s announcement surprised them.
“If we stood back and looked at things, we could see it coming down the road. But we didn’t think it would be this soon,” Cheryl Twarog said.
Vermont Yankee, which went online in 1972, has been a target of anti-nuclear protests and legal challenges for several years.
“We’ve always told the boys we’ll make it work no matter what happens,” Cheryl Twarog said.
They feel fortunate the closure isn’t immediate, and they have a little over a year’s notice, she said.
Twarog and his wife have told their oldest son that he will finish high school in Keene, but it will likely be a different story for Cameron.
While both Cameron and Evan are upset about Vermont Yankee closing, they’re trying not to let any disappointment or anxiety get to them.
“I don’t want to have to move, but it’s out of my control, so I’m just going to have to go with it,” Cameron said.
However, it’s hard, especially with classmates and friends who are in the same situation, Evan said.
“I know at least a dozen people in my grade with parents who work at Vermont Yankee,” he said. “The uncertainty isn’t helpful, especially because this is our junior year, which is your most stressful year of high school.”
The Twarogs, naturally, have been strong supporters of nuclear energy, and believe it’s a safe and clean way to produce electricity.
Despite nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, nuclear power isn’t something to be afraid of, Cheryl Twarog said. Besides the overall industry being heavily regulated, the people who work at Vermont Yankee are “incredibly dedicated to the safe operation of the plant,” she said.
John Twarog said one of the challenges he will face in finding work at another nuclear power plant, is that the senior operating license for Vermont Yankee won’t transfer. He received the license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after taking an 18-month course.
A person is issued an operating license specific to the nuclear power plant he works at, Twarog said. If he went to work at another plant, he would have to go through the training all over again, he said.
Twarog’s son, Evan, estimates that over the past 14 to 15 years, his father has spent more time in training to operate Vermont Yankee than he did getting his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.
As he and his wife prepared to tell their sons later that August day Vermont Yankee would be closing, Twarog spent the rest of the morning calling the members of his crew to make sure they were aware of the announcement. Like Twarog, they had Tuesday off.
“Then we went radio silent,” Cheryl Twarog said. “We screened all our phone calls. We just didn’t want to talk to anybody. We needed time to absorb things.”
In the days that followed, she said she panicked a bit, and went to the bank to get money to pay the entire oil bill for the winter and Cameron’s violin lessons for the first semester.
In her own way, she was trying to get a hold of the situation, she said.
John Twarog is one in 623 Vermont Yankee employees who must now rethink their lives and careers. Many, like John Twarog, also have families who will be affected by whatever decisions they make.
“There are hundreds of other stories out there like ours,” Cheryl Twarog said.
They come from young families who were looking to make a career out of working at Vermont Yankee, new hires who recently moved to the area and bought houses, and long-time employees.
“The people I work with at Vermont Yankee are like family, and each of us has our own story,” John Twarog said. “I hate to see them going through the same thing I am.”
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