Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Yankee Rowe and the Soul of a Nuclear Worker

An Invitation

About two weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion. This panel is happening tonight in Brattleboro. The Commons of Brattleboro is sponsoring the panel, which is titled:

The path toward a post-nuclear economy.  Life After Vermont Yankee: What's next?

I was unable to be  on the panel, because I had a conflict tonight.  I write more about the panel, near the end of this post.

A Panel Member: Dr. John R. Mullin

Of course, I was curious about the panel, though I couldn't attend.  I studied the short descriptions of the panel members. (Double-click on the announcement to do the same.)

One name on the panel was new to me: John R. Mullin.   He is a professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has an impressive Curriculum Vitae. On the panel description, he was listed as: a co-author of the 1997 paper “The Closing of the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant: The Impact on a New England Community.”  With a short search, I easily found both his paper  and a recent interview with him on Radio Boston: Lessons From the Closing of Mass. Nuclear Plant.

Economics and Property Values

I agreed with many of the statements that Mullin made on the radio program. He acknowledged that closing the plant has a  huge economic impact, and similar jobs do not exist in the areas near the plant.  On the other hand, he claims that property values fall because people are living "in the shadow of a (decommissioned) nuke."

Hmm...everybody was living in the "shadow of" a working nuke before!  It is clear to me, despite my lack of a Ph.D. in urban planning, that when a plant is decommissioned, property values fall because high-paying jobs go away. Property values don't fall because the dry casks are still at the site.  If the casks were at the site but the plant was operating and lots of workers were values wouldn't fall.  Well, that is my opinion anyway.  In Mullin's opinion, the big question is: "Would you want to be living within the shadow of a nuke?" (From the Boston Radio interview.)

The Soul of the Nuclear Workers

Near the end of the 1997 paper on the Closing of Yankee Rowe is a section called Future Prospects for Dismissed Employees.  This section notes that  "There are simply no jobs in Rowe that match their skills, nor any local plants where pride of work is so high." Employees that remain in the town can expect jobs with less pay and less status.  That is all true, and it is sad.

However, some of section seems to reflect some schadenfreude on the part of the authors of the paper. It seems to have a little sneaking joy in other people's misfortunes.  Here's the quote that annoys me:
What is especially different at Rowe, however, is the degree of alienation likely for those who stay. Rowe and its neighboring communities were dominated by YAEC, and most employees seemed to think the plant would last forever. From this lofty situation to "just a job" is a real comedown. The decline in status will be particularly difficult because for years the Yankee employees often were regarded with some jealousy.
"Just a job," huh?  Working at a nuclear power plant is "just a job" and the workers just recently found that out?   When I read about the "real comedown" for the workers, it seemed to me to be mean-spirited.  But worse; it  missed the point!

The Motivations of the Soul

Firefighters from Wikipedia
This quote shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations of certain types of workers: nuclear workers, utility workers, fire-fighters, police, doctors, nurses, paramedics.  From my own knowledge of such workers,  they don't see it as "just a job."  These types of jobs all have requirements above and beyond the nine-to-five jobs in offices and factories.  This work keeps the lights on (day and night), keeps people safe (day and night), saves lives (day and night).

In most places, work of this type is accorded high status because people acknowledge the necessity of this work to keep the community safe.  People also acknowledge the sacrifice that such work can demand. (Hail to those who carry pagers!)

Of course, these jobs are also a way to earn a living.  Everybody has to earn a living.  But many people who hold these jobs think of them as a calling. For example, my husband's family includes three generations  of fire-fighters.

Man's Search for Meaning.  Working in a nuclear plant is a "job" with the gift of meaning.

Vermont Yankee Workers by Cheryl Twarog

Let's end on a high note here, with a more upbeat quote! Cheryl Twarog, wife of a long-time Vermont Yankee employee, wrote this letter to the editor, which is appearing in several local newspapers: Vermont Yankee Workers are Great.  Quotes from her letter are below:

Thank you for being the greatest group of people John has ever worked with.....
Thank you for remembering what is important, even at a time like this, when so many are jubilantly celebrating the impending job losses...You continue to go to work each day with the safe operation of the plant as your top priority, shutting out the ignorance of others. You are a highly skilled, dedicated and caring group of people, and you deserve all of the good that can come your way.Wishing each one of you the best.

More about the Panel

When the panel organizers  asked me to be on the panel, my first question was: "Can you hold it a night OTHER than Wednesday night?"  Well, they couldn't. I have a conflict tonight and cannot attend.  It is important to me to share that I was asked, however. When I put the panel announcement on the Save Vermont Yankee Facebook page, there were comments to the effect that most of the people on the panel had never supported continued operation of the plant.  So I need to state for the record that I am not on the panel because I had a conflict today, not because they didn't want me.

Here's the announcement of the panel in The Commons. The event is coordinated by journalist and Commons contributor Leah McGrath Goodman and her associate, Morgan Milazzo.  I am grateful for the invitation.

Alas, I know that Guy Page of VTEP (a frequent guest blogger on this blog) also had a conflict.  I know this because he emailed me and the organizers, and the organizers immediately asked me if I could try to manage to attend. I couldn't.  I am disappointed that Guy won't be on the panel, but since I can't be there, there is nothing I can do about it.   


Anonymous said...

You should go back and reread the comment about "just a job." My takeaway from that paragraph is that the author recognizes the workers at the nuclear plant saw their positions as special, and with the plant closure they will probably take a different position that won't be as fulfilling. It's that new position that the authors are referencing as feeling like "just a job."

My sense is that the authors were not being joyful at the misfortune of the plant workers, but rather the authors empathize with the loss, and recognize that the workers saw their jobs as more than a paycheck and won't feel that same sense of status in a future position.

Meredith Angwin said...


You are right. It is probably the new situation that is "just a job." I think I misread it. In self-defense, I will say that that is not the most clearly-written sentence that I have ever read!

However, I don't think the author is all that sympathetic to the workers. First, he says that: "they seemed to think the plant would last forever" which implies a certain level of self-satisfaction or naiveté. Then he speaks of their "comedown" from this "lofty situation." Speaking of people's "comedown" is not a sympathetic word, especially if they had been "lofty" before.

And the components of the "lofty situation" were that they worked at a place that dominated the locality, and that they were envied. In what I wrote, I wanted to stress that working at a nuclear plant is more than job security plus being envied. Most nuclear workers (indeed, most of the utility workers I have met) take real pride in their work and in the sacrifices they make in terms of shift work, pagers, and so forth. They know they are essential contributors to society.

That said, however, the author does say other things which are more sympathetic to the workers and the plant: for example, he says "There are simply no jobs in Rowe that match their skills, nor any local
plants where pride of work is so high." A true statement.

But for me, even this is a bit ambiguous. "Pride of work"? Pride of working for the premier employer ("I'm a big man in this town, because I work for Rowe") or "pride of work" in the sense of safety culture, careful work, and pride in what is accomplished? I guess the reader can choose...

Robert said...

The question I have is when someone owns a restaurant and they have a liquor license, the license shows up on their books as an asset. I would think that a license to operate a nuclear power station would be an asset too for a utility. As for having to employ people, why could they not shut down VY for awhile and then when time to restart, get trained people from other Entergy plants at least at the beginning? Is the 4.4 million cost to the NRC really all that much?

BobinPgh, dont mean to be anonymous

Tom Buchanan said...

@Robert: You asked why the plant can't just shutdown for a while and then get workers from other plants when it wants to restart. That's a common question right now. A nuclear plant isn't like a restaurant in which the doors can be closed and the lights shut off for a few years.

If a nuclear plant shuts down for an extended period it becomes very difficult and expensive to restart. It just isn't reasonable to expect a small and marginally profitable plant to be able to jump that hurdle.

The issue of a restart after a lengthy delay was covered in docket 7862 (the current CPG case) by the testimony of Michael Perito who is Senior Vice President and COO for Entergy Nuclear Operations. His prefiled testimony discusses a long-term shut down relative to a PSB delay and the expectations of Entergy in 2002, but the issues and concerns are valid across all scenarios. He testimony should give you a sense of why a restart would be such a challenge. I have listed (below) a link to Mr. Perito's prefiled rebuttal testimony. If you wish to get right to the meat of that question, you can skip to question/answer 12 on page 6.

Meredith Angwin said...

Tom, thank you for your answer and the reference.

To make it a bit easier for the readers, I have copied question 12 and Perito's answer below, from the pre-filed testimony on the CPG docket.
Q. You also said there were operational reasons why it was unrealistic to expect in 2002 that the VY Station could practically resume operation after having been shut down for an extended period of time. Please explain those operational reasons.

A. Resuming the safe operation of a nuclear plant after it has been shut down for an extended period is not simply a matter of having all the employees return to the plant and flipping a few switches to restart it. Safe operation of a nuclear plant is a highly demanding and structured endeavor that requires strict adherence to processes procedures and schedules. Any disruption to such adherence increases the risk of deviations that can adversely affect safety. For that reason, when union workers at Entergy-owned plants have gone on strike for just a few weeks, we have implemented a fairly lengthy and rigorous re-integration process to ensure the workers’ adherence to processes, procedures and schedules after they return to work. For a longer shutdown approaching two years or more in duration, the disruption to adherence to processes, procedures and schedules would be much greater and would require a correspondingly longer re-integration process before operation could safely resume. In addition, if the VY Station remained shut down for an extended duration, it is likely that the NRC would conduct fairly extensive inspections and audits to ensure that the plant would be operated safely before allowing it to resume operation. These inspections and audits, together with the re-integration process for employees, would impose additional costs upon Entergy VY and would very likely delay the resumption of operation well beyond the date that a renewed CPG were granted. Such delay would further postpone the VY Station’s generation of power and receipt of revenues, forcing Entergy VY to incur additional economic losses.