Decommissioning Vermont Yankee: The Governor vs. The Facts

By Meredith Angwin

Shumlin’s View

In a press conference on August 11, Governor Peter Shumlin spoke about the economic impact of closing Vermont Yankee:

The jobs gap doesn’t really happen for about 16 years. 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 of decommissioning do not bear out Shumlin’s optimistic statements. There is a jobs cliff. A company has two main choices for decommissioning a nuclear plant.

1) Prompt decomissioning, that is, starting the decommissioning project as soon as the plant is closed.

2) “SafStor”, keeping the plant intact for many years, until decommissioning is more convenient.

Shumlin and SafStor 

CT Yankee dry casks after decommissioning

The last part of Shumlin’s statement contains the words “as long as they keep their promise on decommissioning the plant whenever it shuts down.” In other words, that Entergy would not put the plant in SafStor. However, Entergy made no such promise.  All agreements about decommissioning are in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a contract signed by the state and Entergy when Entergy bought the plant in 2002. The MOU is nine pages long, and several of the pages are about decommissioning. According to the MOU, Entergy can choose to put the plant in SafStor. In this situation, the fuel is removed from the core and the plant is kept “as-is” for many years. Then it is decommissioned.

Shumlin has always refused to honor the fact that Vermont Yankee has the Safstor option. In an early March press conference, he said that he had never heard of SafStor during the committee hearings when the plant was sold to Entergy. He said that conceivably, Entergy had sneaked in some words about SafStor among “thousands of pages” of documentation, but it was never discussed.

At the press conference, Terri Hallenbeck of the Burlington Free Press asked him why “discussions in committee would matter more than the document which the state signed?” Mr. Shumlin answered her question with a question: “You working for Entergy today?”

Shumlin clearly doesn’t accept that the state signed a document which gives Entergy the right to use SafStor. However, the state did sign it.

If Entergy Uses SafStor

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. 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.

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.

Prompt Decommissioning

Clearly, SafStor is a “jobs cliff”, and Entergy can choose to use it. But what if Entergy chooses prompt decommissioning?

Shumlin imagines 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 not accurate. 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: Main Yankee, Yankee Rowe, and Connecticut Yankee. At an industry forum on decommissioning in 2006, Norton gave a paper on “lessons learned” from the decommissioning experience. He considers the need for rapid layoffs to be an important lesson-learned.

“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.”

His 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.

Norton noted that managing morale was a very difficult problem.

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 actually 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.

In short, 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 brought in 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. As a matter of fact, at Maine Yankee, retention bonuses had to be used to keep a few key nuclear workers in place for several years of decommissioning. From start to finish, Maine Yankee decommissioning took eight years, not the six years of cooling plus ten years of decommissioning that Shumlin describes.  Despite Shumlin’s optimistic statements, decommissioning leads to rapid loss of jobs and community.

26 thoughts on “Decommissioning Vermont Yankee: The Governor vs. The Facts

  1. Gbli,Simha, You two seam to be fixed on the fact that these plants are over 30 years old. If I owned a 1969 Chevy Camaro (it would be over 40 years old) that was maintained as well as the nuclear plants are, it would be worth more today than when it was brand new! If it got a flat tire while I was driving it no one would be saying junk it it’s dangerous. They would be saying fix it and get it back on the road so we can see it.

    • A power plant whose debt is fully amortized is an incredibly valuable asset. It’s like having a rental property in the best part of town with a paid-off mortgage. It’s almost pure income, very little expenses (maintenance, taxes, etc.). Why anyone would want to throw away such a valuable, perfectly good asset makes absolutely no sense for anyone with half a brain.

  2. So Gbli how are we going to replace 2500 mega watts WITH A CAPACITY FACTOR OF OVER 90%,Simha how is Vermont going to replace 620 mega watts WITH A CAPACITY FACTOR OF OVER 90%? Wind and solar are only about 20% capacity factor. So I expect you two to stand out there proud in front of angry crowds saying I closed the the nuclear power plant(s). While these people are experiencing brown outs, blackouts and much higher electric prices.

  3. Gbli Think before you write. Indian Point is going for re licensing. So is VY going for re licensing. S o that means they are about the same age. So when you get on a web site and look for people to take your side, when the subject mater is the same and the majority disagree with you THINK! It makes you look like an idiot! I can smell an NIMBY from 10 miles away! You know nothing about Indian Point or it’s safety systems. I work at Indian Point and have dealt with your kind for a long time. Your like Simha. Gbil take the chip off your shoulder! By the way Simbha YOU NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS. WHAT IS YOUR NUCLEAR BACKGROUND? DON’T WANT TO FACE THE HARD QUESTIONS. YOU AND Gbil CAN FIT YOUR NUCLEAR KNOWLEDGE IN A THIMBLE!

  4. I’m worried entergy will walk away from it, absolutely. They already tried to dump vermont yankee in a shell company to avoid paying in to the decomm fund.

    After 37 years, it’s time for them to clean it up and close it down

    • Do you know anything about the regulations regarding decommissioning funding? Owners of a plant, whether it is operating or shutdown, have to demonstrate, using accepted accounting methodogy, that they have a dedicated, set-aside fund adequate to cover the anticpated costs of decommissioning and restoring the site. Nobody is going to “walk away”.

      Did you know that the nuclear industry is the only industry that plans ahead for dismantling a plant and paying for that cost? This isn’t required of things like the chemical industry, which in many ways poses a much more grave long-term health hazard (chemical toxins have no half-life, they don’t decay, and so are toxic forever). In my town there is an abandoned ball bearings factory that the company “walked away” from. The city can’t give away the site. Why? No records were kept (or required) about the environmental hazards remaining there. About 30 miles south of me there is an abandoned steel mill and coke ovens just rusting away, leaching who knows what toxic metals into the groundwater. Nobody in the media makes a beef about those. Yet they’ll go after a nuclear plant, which takes care of and manages its waste and plans ahead for cleanup, like a pack of rabid hyenas.

    • What are they worried about? Nothing bad has happened. Nothing bad will happen. What, did someone scare them, like they were little kids?

      We’ve got a lot more legitimate worries than IP1 being in SAFSTOR. Number one on the list should be that the country is going broke. Right up there with that is that a lot of people are freaking out over a perfectly benign, economical, zero-emissions method of generating huge quantities of electricity safely and reliably, seemingly in favor of ways that are unreliable, uneconomical, and based on ancient, ancient “technology”.

  5. Meredith,

    Very good article pointing out that Shumlin is once again not considering the best interests of his constituents. When a governor does not actually review similar situations to understand the effects on his or her state then that governor is not serving the best long-term interests of their constituents.

    The data on how nuclear plants are decommissioned, the loss of jobs and effects on the local economy are out there for study. He could speak to other governors on how plants were decommissioned in their states. But he keeps avoiding those realities.

    Shumlin acts like this is a game where he thinks he holds all the cards or he is acting like Vermont is the first state to go through a decommissioning process. Either way he is wrong on both counts. Shumlin is wrong to fight to close the plant and he is wrong about how many jobs will be lost during a decommissioning if that ever comes to pass.

  6. Containment vessels can only leak 1% of 1% and dry casks are indestructible, hot particles don’t exist or don’t pose a threat to human health and radiation is safe because its “natural”.

  7. Meredith,

    If Nuclear is so safe than why are some of the most technologically advanced countries already implementing a phase out of Nuclear power production?

    • Political expediency. It is the PC thing to do, and that is driven by raw emotion and irrational fear. Those who do away with nuclear energy will simply create more greenhouse gases and reduce their standard of living because of high energy prices.

    • Well, let’s see if they actually do phase it out. I doubt it.

      As I keep saying, it’s not that nuclear is perfect, it is simply that it is better than anything else. Germany has walked up to the “shut-down nuclear cliff” before, then looked at buying Russian gas or using more coal….and walked right back to nuclear. Sweden walked up to the cliff, considered damming even more of their beautiful valleys for hydro, and walked right back to nuclear. As the shut-down day approaches, the cliff-hanger excitement begins, and then…nuclear is the choice.

      Also, lots of technologically advanced countries, even Japan, are NOT walking away from nuclear. And then there are countries like India. Nuclear is important to them. As a country, India is poor and has many problems (I have relatives there, and life is hard, in my opinion.) BUT, India has about five-ten times the engineers we do, and they are more advanced than we are in some ways. Certainly advanced enough to make good choices.

      Years ago, Bill Gates was asked if he could hire the graduates of only one school, what school would it be. (or a question very similar to that.) His answer was instant: Indian Institute of Technology.

      Okay, so I am an India booster. That’s just the way it is. What the heck. Our son-in-law’s website– because I can get off-topic if I want to. 🙂

  8. Simha. Where do you get your anti-nuke rhetoric facts from. What makes you think that children from Japan are going to die from internat cancer? I have been reading all the comments on this site. I agree with the pro nukies. Do you have any background in nuclear? Ever work in a nuclear power plant, Been in the nuclear Navy, Have an nuclear engineering degree? I have worked in the nuclear field for 29 years. I have a life time exposure of over 13 rem. NO CANCER! So take the chip off your shoulder when in the company of knowledgeable people.

  9. Simha. Arnie Gundersen does not have more experience and expertise than the people who have answered you.

    For example, Gundersen has never held a Professional Engineering license, and Howard Shaffer is licensed in four states. Gundersen claims to be a Reactor Operator, but he only operated a test reactor in grad school, which ran at atmospheric pressure. Licensed reactor operators (Shaffer is one) run power plants with high pressure steam, and did not have a professor standing by to supervise their work.

    I could give more examples. But this is not an attack on Gundersen.

    If you want to believe there’s some amazing source of reliable power out there, and it is not nuclear, coal or big hydro, go ahead. I can’t change your mind, and I know it. If you want to believe Gundersen knows everything about nuclear, go ahead and believe it. Once again, I cannot change your mind.

    But don’t insult everyone who answers you by saying they are less qualified and experienced than Gundersen. I don’t expect you to understand this, because Gundersen says what you want to hear. However, he does not have “more experience and expertise” than any of us, and I want to make this very very clear.

    • Simha:

      “Arnold Gundersen from Fairewind Associates has more experience and expertise than any of you. But why listen to him? Nuclear is Safe.”

      That is quite an assertion. Here is an article that I wrote several months ago in which I detail Mr. Gundersen’s actual experience.

      I have also documented numerous incidents in which Mr. Gundersen has made statements that are provably false or inaccurate and that would result in failures on oral boards or written tests that are a routine part of being a nuclear professional. You can find the most recent example of that kind of documentation at the following URL:

      It is fine to use an “appeal to authority” in a debate, but you should choose your sources carefully and understand that an appeal to authority opens you and your source up to critical questions and probing of the background.

      By the way, I do not have any degrees in nuclear engineering, but the US navy trained me well enough in the subject area that they willingly assigned me the responsibility of being the engineering department head on board one of their submarines. The process of training and evaluating my capability was not “peer review”; it was critical review by people with far more experience who tested my knowledge and performance pretty thoroughly before selecting me for the job.

      I am pretty sure that there are others in this conversation – including Mr. Shaffer, who have even more experience and credentials than I do.

      In any case, I can guarantee that I have operating a more powerful reactor than that 100 Watt university “critical assembly” that Mr. Gundersen operated. I have done that job during a much wider range of conditions and over a much longer period of time.

      Rod Adams
      Publisher, Atomic Insights

    • Gundersen does not have more experience or expertise than me. He does not have a Ph.D. He does not have a PE license. He does not have 33+ years’ experience in the nuclear industry. I have all those things. Gundersen has never synched a 1000 MW generator to the grid, as I have . He has never operated a power reactor, as I have. Much of Gundersen’s “expertise” is in testifying and talking to media. His work experience includes a significant amount of management and sales work. That is not “engineering” in the sense of designing, building, or operating things. Those of us who have done those things generally take a dim view of those who pretend they have but really haven’t.

  10. This guy [Shumlin] is incredible. He obviously has an adgenda and no knowledge what so ever about nuclear power production or the industry. He is living in a fantasy land regarding shutdown of the plant and decommisioning activities. He must be paying off some form of contribution to his election, because if his decisions on other matters before the state are based upon a similar level of “knowledge” the state of Vermont may as well pack it in.

  11. Another thing about D&D jobs is that they are really crappy jobs. In fact, they stink on ice. You are literally working yourself out of a job. Morale is lousy. Because you know, when the job is done, where do you go? Either on the unemployment line, or you become a wandering nomad, moving from town to town, job to job, burying the life work of others.

    The work itself is incredibly boring. Just doing survey after survey, pushing mops and brooms and deconning low-level activity. Cutting up pipes and walls, demolishing offices and structures. Most engineers are trained to build things, not tear them down. How anyone can work in a job that literally destroys the life work of others is beyond me.

  12. Simha,

    Concern for the health and well being of humanity is the main reason WHY most of us support nuclear power.

    Fossil fuel power plants in the US alone cause 25,000 deaths every single year (from air pollution) and are the leading cause of global warming. Over its 40-year history, US nuclear power plants have never had any measurable impact on public health (no member of the public has ever been killed). And nuclear has negligible global warming impact.

    Even the Fukishima event has not caused any deaths, and few if any are projected. The harm inflicted every day on public health and the environment from fossil fuels exceeds that which resulted from Fukishima.

    Radioactive planet? The earth’s crust and biosphere has always contained a large amount of naturally-occurring radioactivity. The increase in the amount of radioactivity in the biosphere due to 50+ years of nuclear power operations (including all accidents) is completely negligible, compared to the natural amount. Also, fossil fuel plants (mainly coal) have actually released a far greater amount of radioactive material, along with a host of other (much more important) pollutants, into the biosphere.

    Closing the Vermont Yankee plant will result in more air pollution, increased health risks for the population, and increased CO2 emissions, as well as increased power costs.

    If you care about the health and well being of humanity, your primary objective should be reducing the use of fossil fuels, not nuclear power.

    • Tell that to all the children with internal radiation exposure in Japan, who you will most likely out live. Cancer is a slow and painful death.

      pro-nukers always seem to think fossil fuels are the only alternative. How much has our technology advanced in 50 years? These dinosaurs are only still around because Giant Energy Corps have a vested interest.

  13. What about the Health and well-being of humanity? Have we gone too far down the road to a radioactive-planet to turn back? How many Fukushimas will it take to say “no amount of job losses, no amount of higher energy costs is worth this risk.” There are those who claim there is no risk in a place like Vermont. Have we not seen how powerless we humans are in the face of nature’s power? Where is our humility?

    • The planet has been radioactive since it’s creation. Our choice is to manage our exposure. We do this routinely with exposure to the natural radioactivity from the sun.

      How many years of 30,000 dying prematurely each year in the US alone, from asthma due to fine-particle pollution from coal will it take to get people to accept that nothing is perfect, and nuclear power is our best choice.

      Why are there 30 countries with nuclear power programs?

      How much radioactivity from a volcano?

  14. Meredith,
    Great factual article about the realities of past history regarding nuclear plants that refute another misleading/inaccurate/wishful thinking statement from Shumlin. He has made many such statements. May be he gets his “facts” from people with agendas similar to his own; sort of like an echo chamber.

    Those echoes become their gospel and are passed off as truths, etc., to unsuspecting Vermonters to advance their agendas which is to make Vermont less efficient, raise living costs, and doing- business costs, etc., by rolling into the rate schedules the high-cost energy of PV solar and environmentally-destructive, noisy, industrial wind turbine projects that would not be built without subsidies that currently are equivalent to at least 60% of their capital cost.

    These projects are led by multi-millionaire renewables vendors, project developers and financiers who aim to enrich themselves with subsidies under the farcical guise of saving the world from global warming, all at the expense of Vermonters.

    Vermont has the lowest CO2 profile of any state. Almost all of its CO2 is from buildings and vehicles. Why not provide adequate subsidies for making buildings more efficient and to promote high mileage, above 35 mpg, vehicles?

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