Kevin O’Connor Photo A joint hearing of the state House committees on Commerce and Economic Development and Natural Resources and Energy takes testimony in Vernon on Monday on the coming closing of the town’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
VERNON — Angry Vernon residents blamed the state of Vermont Monday for the looming shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, two Vermont House committees were told.
About two dozen Vermont legislators saw and heard a different side to the pending shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station Monday — from scared and upset Yankee employees and Vernon residents, and the government agencies that have vowed to help rebuild the region’s economy.
The most poignant testimony came in the evening session before the Vermont House Committees on Commerce and Economic Development and Natural Resources and Energy, when dozens of Vernon residents applauded people who said they felt betrayed by the Legislature and that the Legislature should bear some of the responsibility for the closing of the 41-year-old nuclear reactor.
In their minds, the state shot the goose that laid their proverbial golden egg.
While Entergy Corp., the owner of Vermont Yankee, announced in late August it was shutting down Vermont Yankee because the plant was losing money, the 70 or so people who crowded into the evening hearing made it clear they felt the state of Vermont was really responsible.
Norma Manning of Vernon said she still had 10 years to pay off on her home mortgage, and finding another job in the area would be extremely difficult. Leaving family and friends in Vermont is not a viable option, she said to applause.
Martin Langeveld, of Vernon, said that Yankee’s closing posed a unique situation, because the state had fought hard to shut it down.
“This is not a simple, normal plant closing,” said Langeveld. For years, he said, the goal of the Legislature was to shut down Yankee.
Now, he said, the Legislature should “generously fund” efforts to lessen the impact of the plant’s closing, “and build a new post-VY economy.”
Another man, John Butterfield, said that the well-paying jobs at Vermont Yankee — he estimated workers were paid $108,000 — could not be compared with “factory” jobs at Commonwealth Dairy in Brattleboro, a yogurt company that is a recent success story.
“I don’t see yogurt as our salvation,” he said.
Local dairy farmer Paul Miller was applauded when he said any remaining tax dollars coming from Entergy should stay in Vernon, instead of the millions sent to Montpelier as it has for the past 40 years. “I think it’s owed to us,” he said.
About 80 of Entergy’s employees live and work in Vernon, but they represent a large portion of the school’s children. The impact on the school was another big worry, people said. A similar number of Entergy employees live in Brattleboro, but in a much larger town the impact is less, people said.
The Entergy Nuclear employees and their Vernon neighbors said the closing of Yankee would not only damage the economics of their town and their way of life, but would damage the livelihood of the region.
More than one Yankee employee said they didn’t want to leave Vermont, and they didn’t know where they would find a job to replace their job at the Vernon reactor.
Entergy Nuclear employs about 620 people, who on average make more than $100,000 each.
Replacing that kind of wage and paying the bills will be very difficult, people said.
Michael Ball, a senior engineer at Entergy Nuclear, who has worked at Vermont Yankee for 28 years, and is the former chairman of the Vernon Select Board, said a lack of information was causing “a high level of anxiety” for people in the town.
He urged government leaders to do a better job of getting basic information out to the public.
Many of the answers to people’s questions can be found on either Entergy’s or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website, he said.
He said that people in Vernon are worried about a housing collapse, and that they won’t be able to sell their homes if they need to move away. And without the local jobs, he said, local businesses will suffer.
Earlier in the day, the legislators heard from representatives from the Windham Regional Commission, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategy about what efforts they hoped to launch to help the region rebound from the loss of hundreds of jobs and $65 million in payroll, as well as the challenges for decommissioning Yankee.
BDCC and SeVEDS outlined a list of priorities that total $2 million in various requests to help jump start the Windham County economy, according to Pat Moulton Powden, director of workforce development for BDCC, the local development group.
The Windham County economy is weak to begin with, and will only get weaker, said Stephan Morse of Newfane, chairman of the SeVEDS Post Vermont Yankee Committee.
In addition to the direct loss of the 620 jobs when Yankee shuts down at the end of 2014, there will a loss of another 400 jobs related to Yankee, ranging from schoolteachers at the Vernon Elementary School to people at retail shops in nearby Brattleboro, to Entergy subcontractors.
During the afternoon, the legislators also heard from Michael Twomey, vice president of external affairs for the regional office of Entergy Nuclear, based in White Plains, N.Y.
Entergy Nuclear has not made a firm decision on how quickly it will decommission Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, he said.
The so-called “SAFSTOR” scenario under NRC rules gives the company the option of its decommissioning timetable.
It could be as quick as five years or 10 years or the full 50 years that NRC regulations allow, Twomey said.
Entergy has two years from when Vermont Yankee actually shuts down in 2014 to submit its decommisioning plan to the NRC, he said.
“Our objective is to be transparent and constructive,” said Twomey, who at one time said he didn’t have detailed information about the closing “because I was an English major.”
But Twomey noted he had come to the legislative hearing “without my attorneys.”
Twomey, in response to a question from a legislator, said that Entergy would tap Yankee’s current $570 million decommissioning trust fund for any allowable expenses, whether they would be property taxes to Vernon or paying bonuses to employees to stay on the job until the plant shuts down.
Twomey also said that the company hadn’t settled on a plan for handling the thousands of spent fuel rod assemblies currently on site in Vernon.
Vermont Yankee currently has 3,900 fuel assemblies located in three different locations: 880 assemblies (the oldest and the coolest) have already been removed from the reactor building and placed in concrete and steel air-cooled casks.
About 2,650 assemblies still sit in the plant’s spent fuel pool, which is located on the top of the reactor building, and there are 370 assemblies still in the reactor core, he said.
Entergy would have to build another pad to house the giant storage casks, he said, since the current facility only has the capacity for 36 casks, and 58 are needed in total to house the 3,900 assemblies. The company currently has 13 casks in use.
Rep. Tony Klein, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, and a leading Yankee opponent, told the gathering he had a “greater appreciation of what’s going on down here. That’s a big accomplishment.”
“You’re not just a nondescript face any more,” he said. “We have heard it first-hand and we have a greater appreciation of what needs to happen.”
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