Closure dates for nuclear power plants can be hard to predict. Their fate is tied up in fiscal, technical and political factors. Recently the rate of closures has picked up, based on economic pressures from cheap natural gas and the increasing costs of maintaining an aging nuclear fleet.
Regional and national conversations about nuclear power center on electricity supply and cost, environmental goals and radiological safety. But we focus on how closure looks from the host community’s standpoint. There are substantial financial and social losses that pose major, long-term risks to local and regional economies.
Plants employ hundreds of people, often in some of the highest paid jobs available locally. Dozens of other businesses rely on spending from the plant and its employees. Schools and libraries, municipal and county budgets, emergency services and charitable organizations rely on plant-based revenues. Removing $500 million to $1.5 billion or more annually from what are often relatively modest economies can be very painful. In communities with few other economic engines, plant closures may lay bare deep, underlying economic weaknesses that make recovery uncertain or unlikely.
Nuclear power plants are special. They can be quiet giants, poorly understood by those not directly connected to its operations. Their closures are special in some ways, as well. Sites are subject to a regulatory framework with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that makes it unlike anything most local or state officials will ever handle. It is in some ways predictable, in other ways impossibly complex and opaque.
While there are layoffs like other plant closures, job losses are followed by many workers leaving. Without that skilled workforce it can be hard to attract new employers. Employees of the shuttered Vermont Yankee plant located in Vernon, Vermont, have found themselves in high demand nationally. Relocation has been common. Losing these households eats away at the fabric of communities, compounding economic losses. Volunteer sports coaches, Habitat for Humanity volunteers, United Way donors, families that spend money, pay taxes, spend at local businesses are ebbing away as the plant downsizes operations toward just a few dozen employees required to monitor the spent fuel left behind.
The foreseeable losses from plant closures are substantial enough to merit major planning efforts. Economic impact studies forecast the nature and scale of losses, but it’s not clear what to do next to prepare, beyond bracing for the worst and slashing budgets.
Unfortunately, no targeted programs or funding exist to support nuclear host communities doing this kind of planning. The accelerating pace of nuclear power plant closures has exposed a problem that will affect quality of life for hundreds of towns, many in rural or economically depressed areas. There are no model practices or policies, and no federal entity that assumes responsibility beyond radiological safety, environmental cleanup and monitoring of spent fuel.
A decade ago, community leaders in Southern Vermont asked what might happen to the regional economy if their plant shut down. They conducted a study to understand the problem, and produced the first-ever Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy incorporating nuclear plant closure impacts into economic planning. They had realized it was up to the region to take action because no help would be offered. By the time Vermont Yankee announced closure, work was already underway to replace Vermont Yankee losses with new jobs and businesses.
Today, the community around the Diablo Canyon Power Plant is at the start of a long journey. As home to many of the earliest plant closures, New England offers a network of people with experience, many of whom are also working to improve federal policies that will frame your future experience. This includes engaging with two current initiatives; NRC rulemaking on decommissioning and the Department of Energy consent-based approach to the spent fuel siting process.
Hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent to decommission the nuclear power plants that supply one-fifth of our nation’s energy. Additional billions are going into spent fuel handling and related litigation.
Currently, the best-case closure scenario is simply restoring nuclear sites to a natural state, erasing the past with no attempt to generate new economic activity.
We can do more. Only a few decades ago, America lacked a coherent approach to polluted sites. Now brownfield programs commonly transform polluted sites into new assets that attract investment.
Military base closures have been devastating, but over time Base Realignment and Closure practices are evolving to help create new economic activity and redevelopment.
The local, county, regional and state agencies responsible for each community need enough funding and authority to implement timely and sufficient mitigation of all risks — to economic, environmental and human health. Decommissioning creates unfunded mandates precisely at the point when revenues are dropping. Ultimately, we need a national solution that makes the long-term economic health of host communities a policy goal. We need a federal agency that assumes responsibility for achieving that goal.
We urge California’s policymakers to join a growing body of state and federal legislators and regulators who believe we can do better when it comes to caring for the communities providing our nation’s energy.
John Mullin is professor emeritus of regional planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and former dean of the graduate school. He is co-founder of the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities and teaches a course on nuclear plant closures in the UMass Honors College.
Laura Sibilia is economic development director at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. in Vermont and a member of Vermont’s House of Representatives. She worked on development of a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy to address impacts of Vermont Yankee’s closure.
Jennifer Stromsten is program director for the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities. She has 20 years of nonprofit development experience, and a master’s degree in regional planning, focused on sustainable land use and economic development.