In general, I make the optimistic (and I believe correct) assumption that Vermont Yankee will continue to operate until 2032. However, opponents like to talk about the "jobs bonanza" of decommissioning. This blog post looks at the facts of decommissioning. It is updated from a post I did about three months ago at True North Reports.
Governor Shumlin's View of Decommissioning
A company has two main choices for decommissioning a nuclear plant.
- Prompt decommissioning: starting the decommissioning project as soon as the plant is closed.
- SafStor: keeping the plant intact for many years, until decommissioning is more convenient.
In the video below, posted by Vermont Digger from Shumlin's press conference on August 11, Shumlin explains that SafStor (delayed decommissioning) wasn't part of the Vermont Yankee purchase agreement, no matter what papers the state signed, and no matter what words somehow sneaked into those signed papers.
As reported in True North Reports, Shumlin said that decommissioning the plant quickly means:
The jobs gap doesn’t really happen for about 16 years,” he said. “Five to six years for the plant to cool down, gotta keep all the systems running, that requires a number of employees, several hundred. And ten years of decommissioning. So the jobs cliff, despite what they tell you in those 30 second advertisements, is not as significant as long as they keep their promise on decommissioning the plant whenever it shuts down.
Unfortunately, the facts do not agree with Shumlin's optimistic statements.
There is a jobs cliff.
The Reality of SafStor
Shumlin does not believe that Entergy has the right to put Vermont Yankee in SafStor. You can see this in this in the video clip above, and I also described Shumlin's misconception about SafStor in my post In Vermont Our Word is Our Bond, So We Don't Honor Contracts. But Entergy can legally use SafStor, whether Shumlin believes it or not. What will happen if they choose to use it?
Many nuclear plants have been put in SafStor. Usually, an older reactor at a site is put in Safstor while newer reactors at the site continue to operate. At Indian Point, for example, the small Unit 1 reactor (274 MW) has been in SafStor since 1974. Meanwhile, Unit 2 and 3 reactors, around 1000 MW each, continue to operate.
However, stand-alone plants are also placed in SafStor. For example, the Zion plants in Illinois have been in SafStor since 1998 and they are now beginning decommissioning. In the case of Vermont Yankee, the plant would be put in SafStor while the decommissioning fund (now around $490 million dollars) grew to a larger amount. Meanwhile, the radiation at the plant would decrease, leading to a less expensive clean-up.
Shumlin is correct about one thing, however. SafStor does not require many staff people. The site must have security, the fuel pool must be maintained and monitored, and the rest of the system has scheduled inspections. SafStor generally requires a staff of around 100 people, instead of the 650 at Vermont Yankee now. With SafStor, around 80% of the staff at VY would be laid off within a year of shutdown. No further staff would be needed until decommissioning began, which could be many decades in the future.
Clearly, SafStor is a "jobs cliff", and Entergy can choose to use it. But what if Entergy chooses prompt decommissioning? This is the option Shumlin wants Entergy to chose, if the plant is shut down.
Shumlin says that it would take "five or six years for the plant to cool down" while hundreds of employees monitor it. Shumlin's tale is cheerful but wrong. With prompt decommissioning, the staff at the plant is laid off as soon as possible.
Wayne Norton was President of Yankee Atomic during the prompt decommissioning of three nuclear plants: Maine Yankee, Yankee Rowe, and Connecticut Yankee. At an industry forum on decommissioning in 2006, Norton presented a paper on lessons learned from the decommissioning experience. Norton considers the need for rapid layoffs to be an important lesson:
The biggest controllable cost in decommissioning is manpower... However, the plants that have been slow to efficiently accomplish...downsizing [the workforce] have had higher decommissioning costs....Severance packages, early retirement, and worker transition services helped workers make the transition. The major downsizing occurred over about a three month period.
Norton's statements are supported by an Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) report on the decommissioning of Maine Yankee. Decommissioning began in 1997, with an on-site staff of approximately 600 people. By the end of 1997, the staff was down to 300 people, and by the end of 1998, it was down to 135 people. In 1999, the staff shrunk to 85 people
In Either Scenario, the Employees are Gone
With SafStor, most plant people lose their jobs within six months. With prompt decommissioning, it takes two years to downsize to a skeleton staff. Shumlin says decommissioning includes hundreds of people keeping their jobs for many years, but that is not the case.
In the case of prompt decommissioning, contractors are brought in for the majority of the decommissioning work. Norton describes the use of contractors:
Another advantage to early and aggressive downsizing is that it opens up opportunities to bring in workers with skill sets that are more suited to a decommissioning environment. Also, if these workers are contractors, they tend to be more accustomed to completing a given scope of work and moving on to another job.
How many contractors? The number of people in the contract work force is hard to estimate because it varies as the job goes through various phases. Decommissioning activities are done on a subcontract basis, with various groups of contractors brought in and later terminated. Decommissioning is basically a construction (de-construction) project.
Since radiological safety is important, the construction workers must follow protocols. However, the construction workers don't have the protocol-mindset of nuclear workers, and this can lead to problems. In the case of Maine Yankee, the company hired a general contractor to supervise the subcontractors, but then found so many problems that they terminated the general contractor. This has also happened at other plants.
Falling Off the Jobs Cliff
With SafStor or prompt decommissioning, there is a jobs cliff. The people at the plant are mostly gone within six months or two years. The decommissioning workers are not permanent employees, and not encouraged to think of themselves that way. Morale is often low, job security is non-existent, and well-trained people who have other options tend to leave town.
Despite Shumlin's optimistic statements about "five years, then another ten years" it's all over for the regular employees within two years. The contractors do not become permanent residents of the area. The contractors come to town and then move on quickly.
Decommissioning leads to an instant loss of jobs and community.
An earlier version of this post appeared in True North Reports. I thank Rob Roper of True North Reports for permission to repost it here.
The picture of dry casks at Maine Yankee is from the 3yankees website about the decommissioned plants.
Update: I thank Vermont Tiger for their good words about this blog post in Yankee, What If?