By Meredith Angwin
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
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.
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.