This Vermont Town Took A Big Hit When Its Nuclear Plant Closed
At the end of May, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth will permanently shut down. Forty-six years ago it began generating electricity, high-paying jobs and intense controversy over safety and environmental impact.
Pilgrim went into service just one day after its sister plant: Vermont Yankee. Both reactors were the same make and model: a GE Mark I reactor. And since 2002, they have been operated by the same company: Entergy.
But Vermont Yankee closed five years ago, and its host community of Vernon — population 2,206 — has had a rough adjustment to its new social and economic reality.
“I think Vermont Yankee was a lot of Vernon’s identity,” says Town Administrator Michelle Pong. Her father retired from Vermont Yankee, and she used to do office work there during summer vacations. “We were known for being a host community of a nuclear power plant,” Pong says. “You know, they are few and far between. I mean, it’s been here for 40 years.”
There are about 60 nuclear “host communities” across the United States. And while each plant — and each community — is unique, Vernon can offer one major takeaway for towns like Plymouth: They are on their own.
“There was no one to call,” says Jonathan Cooper, research director with the Vermont-based Institute for Nuclear Host Communities. “These are commercial reactors; they’re largely in the private sector. It’s a private sector issue.”
Vermont Yankee Powers Down
In the 1960s, state utilities constructed Vermont Yankee on the site of the Williams dairy farm in Vernon, a small town in the southeastern corner of Vermont.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had renewed the plant’s operating license through 2032, but in 2012, on the day the new license took effect, more than a thousand anti-nuclear demonstrators converged on the Brattleboro headquarters of Entergy.
Vermont Yankee was the same model as those that melted down in Japan’s Fukushima disaster the previous year, and it had its own troubles. Part of the cooling tower had collapsed and radiation had leaked into the ground and water. Protesters said the plant was unsafe and demanded it be shut down.
Just months later, Entergy announced it was closing Vermont Yankee. Entergy says it was declining profits — not protests — that led to the decision. Nuclear-generated electricity couldn’t compete with plants powered by cheap natural gas.
The plant shut down in December 2014 and disconnected from the grid, leaving Vernon in a economic lurch.
Revenue Drop Means Services Are Cut
Running a nuclear plant requires more workers than operating other power plants, says Cooper, of the nuclear host communities group. “Solar, you need two dozen. If you’re looking at coal, it’s about 250. Nothing tops nuclear in terms of total jobs.”
It took more than 600 workers to operate Vermont Yankee. Their average salary was over $100,000 a year — two-and-a-half times the typical job in the region — with a total payroll around $70 million a year.
“The biggest impact obviously that happened on the town was financial,” says Josh Unruh, chair of Vernon’s select board. “We lost several hundreds of thousands of dollars in property tax revenue, and for a town of 2,200 people that’s a huge hit.”
When the plant was operating, Entergy paid more than $1 million a year in property taxes to Vernon. It was more than half of the town’s annual budget.
Vernon’s select board hired a consultant and a lawyer to help them negotiate a post-nuclear deal with Entergy.
“Entergy didn’t want to leave us in a lurch and go from this amount down to nothing,” Unruh says. “We had a step-down program with them over the course of this agreement so the town could adjust and make the changes so it could survive.”
The six-year agreement was half what the company had paid before Vermont Yankee shut down. The deal ends next year.
Meanwhile, Vernon’s municipal budget has decreased by 20 percent, and overall taxes have increased around 20 percent. The town eliminated the maintenance and police departments. It contracted with the county sheriff to patrol Vernon 20 hours a day, and subcontracted maintenance as well. They cut the library budget and free programs at the rec center. Entergy decreased donations to local nonprofits, and cut funding for Vernon’s annual fireworks show.
“That was one of the big things that brought our community together every year,” Unruh says. “The whole town came together doing carnival games at our pool, and then spent the evening together watching the fireworks that were provided by Entergy.”
Dairy farmer and select board member Jeff Dunklee, whose family has lived in Vernon for six generations, says Vermont Yankee has been a “real good neighbor.”
“What’s sad is the people, we lost a lot of the people,” Dunklee says. “They volunteered here, they could be coaches for youth baseball teams or church functions or whatever. So the fabric has been lost, not just the money.”
Businesses in town that relied on Vermont Yankee also closed, including Vernon’s general store.
“It’s been a big downer for the town. It’s been depressing for everybody here,” says Peggy Farabaugh, about the loss of the general store. “We’re a rural town — we don’t have a town center — so you went there for your milk, for your beer, your sandwiches. There used to be a little restaurant where you could have breakfast, so that’s where you could connect with all your neighbors.”
Farabaugh’s husband used to work at Vermont Yankee, and they now own a high-end wood shop with mostly online sales. Their business, at least, is good.
“We’re going to come back. Vernon is coming back,” Farabuagh. “It’s just been a difficult transition for us.”
Slowly the trauma of losing the town’s biggest employer and taxpayer is passing. A new general store has opened, but it’s smaller and less conveniently located.
Bob Spencer, chair of Vernon’s town planning and economic development commission, says officials have begun negotiations with NorthStar, the company that bought Vermont Yankee. As NorthStar decommissions the plant, the select board wants it to continue the payments Entergy was making, and help build a proper town center.
They also want to develop the Vermont Yankee site, once it’s cleaned up.
“We have an infrastructure in place with a rail siding,” says Spencer. “We’ve got an electric switchyard, we have a connection to a hydroelectric dam and a town — probably most importantly — that supports some sort of commercial or industrial use of that site.”
“It was panic city here when we first heard the plant was shutting down because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Stephen Skibniowsky, who worked at Vermont Yankee even before it started operating in 1972, and still works at the shuttered plant as a part-time radiation inspector. “But now we’re … what, five years since the plant shut down. We’re beginning to see that we can survive into the future and there is a future for Vernon. I think Plymouth, Pilgrim and wherever plants are shutting down will probably experience the same thing.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this audio story misstated when Pilgrim is closing and the proportion of Vernon’s budget Vermont Yankee contributed in property taxes. We regret the errors.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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