In May, 150 jobs to be cut at Vermont Yankee

Entergy office

Entergy office. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO – The next round of job cuts at Vermont Yankee has been scheduled for May 5, when 150 employees – roughly half the remaining workforce – will be laid off.

Also, around that same time, plant owner Entergy will be vacating its offices on Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro. Administrators are “looking at our options,” which could include selling the property, a spokesman said.

Both the job cuts and the corporate relocation are directly connected to federally approved emergency planning cutbacks at Vermont Yankee. But company administrators are offering assurances that those changes don’t mean the end of safety measures at the shutdown nuclear plant.

“There will be an emergency response organization,” Entergy VY spokesman Marty Cohn said. “It’s just that it will be reduced.”

Entergy ceased producing power at Vermont Yankee in December 2014, and the plant is headed into a decades-long period of dormancy called SAFSTOR prior to decommissioning. But there are a lot of changes happening at Vermont Yankee, and some of the biggest in 2016 will involve emergency operations.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December approved exemptions and a license amendment that allow Vermont Yankee’s emergency planning zone (EPZ) – which currently includes all or part of 18 towns in three states – to shrink to the boundaries of the plant itself.

Vermont officials had opposed the changes, citing the ongoing presence of spent nuclear fuel in a pool at the plant’s reactor building. But NRC officials ruled that “the risk of an offsite radiological release is significantly lower and the types of possible accidents significantly fewer at a nuclear power reactor that has permanently ceased operations and removed fuel from the reactor vessel.”

The NRC noted that Vermont Yankee still is required to “maintain an onsite emergency plan and response capabilities, including the continued notification of state government officials of an emergency declaration.”

Externally, the NRC’s license amendment means the end of millions of dollars in annual Entergy support for emergency planning in the EPZ towns and states. The company also will not maintain warning sirens or provide tone-alert radios and potassium iodide throughout the current EPZ.

Internally, Entergy will drastically downsize its emergency operations, including elimination of the joint information center and other facilities in Brattleboro.

Reduced emergency operations mean big job cuts at Vermont Yankee. Cohn said May 5 – a little less than three weeks after the NRC’s rulings take effect – has been set as the date for 150 layoffs, all of which are related to the company’s decreased emergency responsibilities.

There currently are a little under 300 Vermont Yankee staffers remaining from a workforce that had stood at about 550 before shutdown. While exact numbers are hard to pin down, it appears that Vermont Yankee’s pending reduction to a workforce of less than 150 would knock it off the list of Windham County’s top 10 employers.

There’s no replacing a plant where the average wage, according to a 2014 study, was $105,000. But officials have attempted to combat the Vermont Yankee job loss in other ways.

For instance, there are detailed steps in the Windham Region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for combating the economic impacts of Yankee’s closure. And Entergy, as part of a shutdown settlement with the state, is paying $2 million annually for the next five years to support economic development in Windham County.

As was the case with the first round of Vermont Yankee layoffs in early 2015, Cohn said Entergy has sought to assist those who are headed for the exit in 2016.

“We’ve already conducted a number of seminars. We’re working very closely with the departments of labor in the tri-state area,” Cohn said. “We’ve had a resume-writing seminar. And there will be one on retirement.”

Plant administrators also are trying to place some departing VY employees at other Entergy nuclear facilities. That effort has grown more complicated, though, with last year’s announcements that Entergy will be shutting down both the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Mass., and the FitzPatrick plant in Scriba, N.Y., over the next several years.

Cohn said Vermont Yankee Site Vice President Chris Wamser has met with administrators at other plants to talk about staffing needs. “We’re doing a job-match that way, with other Entergy facilities,” he said.

Vermont Yankee’s layoffs and scaled-back emergency operations will mean no more VY staffers at the Old Ferry Road offices in Brattleboro. Already, Cohn said, most of the remaining employees have relocated to the Vernon plant site.

After mid-April, “there won’t be anyone from Vermont Yankee (in Brattleboro),” Cohn said. “What we do with the building is something that we’re talking about right now. We’re looking at our options.”

That might involve selling the property, but that hasn’t yet been decided, Cohn added.

Town documents show that Entergy owns two parcels on Old Ferry Road. One 4.86 acre tract was valued at $299,380 in 2014; another 2.06 acre parcel was valued at $222,070, and the building on it was worth $1.62 million, according to Brattleboro’s grand list.

The offices’ location could be desirable, as there is ample parking and an interstate exit nearby. But Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell said the property is not under consideration for the town’s long-sought police-fire headquarters.

“It was a property we knew would be becoming available, so we did take a look at (the Entergy offices),” Elwell said.

He reiterated, though, that the town has purchased an option on the current Brattleboro Reformer building on Black Mountain Road with the idea that it may become a police-fire facility. “The one that looks like the best opportunity for the town in terms of its effectiveness as well as the location and condition of the building was the Reformer building,” Elwell said.

Mike Faher

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