A hole in the community
What happens when a nuclear plant shuts down
At its peak, the Vermont Yankee plant generated more than 70 percent of the electricity made in Vermont. It was the largest, most reliable source of clean energy in the state and one of the largest plants in the New England grid.
But like many other nuclear plants around the U.S., Vermont Yankee was no longer economically competitive and was losing money for its owners. Its closure would cause harm across many states – and for many years.
The environmental and economic effects of closing Vermont Yankee were severe, and they were completely predictable: air pollution increased, as carbon-free nuclear energy was replaced by natural gas; energy costs increased throughout New England, with utilities warning that customer bills could rise 50 percent or more during the winter; and the region’s economy slowed as 1,000 jobs and $500 million in annual spending dried up.
Most painful, though, was the human toll on the Vernon VT, community as nuclear workers were forced to leave behind loved ones and neighbors in search of work.
In the two and a half years since Vermont Yankee closed, many good people had moved on. Someday, the community might recover. But it will never be the same.
When he made his political case that Vermont Yankee should be “retired,” then-Gov. Peter Shumlin promised a “billion-dollar bonanza” for the state. Shumlin argued that, in the short-term, decommissioning a nuclear plant would provide employment, income and spending on par with a functioning power station. While Vermont Yankee was operating, it employed more than 600 people with salaries averaging more than $100,000 a year. Those dollars cycled through the local economy, creating hundreds more indirect jobs.
But closing the plant was not a jobs bonanza – it was a jobs cliff. Hundreds of people lost their jobs, and nowhere near that many jobs were created or likely to be created. To contradict Shumlin’s assertions, I looked at the history of other nuclear plants that closed. What I saw wasn’t pretty. One of the lessons learned about decommissioning was that a closing plant must downsize its staff quickly and aggressively, in order to decommission within the budget of the decommissioning fund.
Lessons learned were everywhere, but they weren’t happy lessons. Wherever a nuclear plant closes, the pattern repeats itself: employment and average incomes fall, which means that tax revenues that fund schools, government services, roads and communities fall, too. To make up the losses, tax rates must rise. In general, the first tax rate to rise is the local property tax.
At the same time, the departure of nuclear workers increases the number of houses on the market, and lowers property values. Local businesses also suffer as temporary workers hired for periodic refueling outages no longer come to town: the outage contractors no longer rent rooms, eat at restaurants, buy groceries or fill their cars with gas. They no longer give the area economy a cheerful boost of workers making good money, with money to spend.
Emissions of carbon and other pollutants rise as clean nuclear energy is replaced by plants that burn fossil fuels. And when a nuclear plant’s around-the-clock supply of electricity is turned off, the law of supply and demand dictates that energy prices must inevitably rise. Even though natural gas prices are low now, when a nuclear plant closes, it creates more competition for the natural gas and the price of gas rises. As natural gas prices rise, so do electricity prices.
About the people
NJ Needs Nuclear: Patty from PSEG on Vimeo.
Nuclear workers are highly skilled, highly trained and highly sought-after. There are jobs to be found at other nuclear plants – for someone who is willing to uproot and leave their friends, their kids’ schools, their churches, their doctors, their favorite restaurants, their church choirs or their poker buddies.
I believe these quotes, left by anonymous commenters on my blog, Yes Vermont Yankee, help illustrate the human side of the story:
“Yes, I relocated. No, it was not easy. Selling a house, buying another one, moving, finding a new house with the right schools. Moving away from grown kids. Moving away from grandkids. My wife had to leave a job that she loved …”
“There is no way I will come close to breaking even on selling my house, not with the housing market the way it is … We have elderly parents and we don't know how we are going to manage ...”In some cases, families were split as one spouse moved to take a new job at a faraway nuclear plant, while the other stayed behind to allow children to stay in school. A plant closure could break up a family for months or years.
Change will never be easy, and it will be harder for some than for others. But plant employees will move on, and they will live well.
For younger people, living well probably means getting out of town, taking their lumps on the declining local housing market and starting anew. Older people may see the loss of a job and community as a betrayal of their lifelong work and plans, and may be less able to start over or go somewhere new.
Today, Vermont Yankee is closed, and the region is forever the worse for it: More carbon in the air, fewer jobs, higher taxes and rising electric bills for those who stay. At one low point, during town meeting, the town of Vernon decided to disband its police force and sell off the cruisers. They could no longer afford their small police force. Hard decisions had to be made.
The Bottom Line
For a plant closure, it is comparatively easy to assess the bottom line in monetary costs.
Economic input to the area down severely, taxes no longer collected, energy prices going up. The human cost – people losing their jobs, becoming discouraged and displaced as they are forced to move to new areas – cannot be calculated.
I believe the nuclear industry will survive. Nuclear workers are smart and resilient. I think the future will work out well for all of them.
I’m less certain about the communities left behind.
The above column is sponsor-generated content from New Jersey Needs Nuclear.
Note: This article is reblogged. It was first printed as sponsored-content in Politico.
I wrote this article a while ago. It is partially an update to my earlier article Circles of Pain Around Vermont Yankee closing