VERNON – At a recent economic development announcement in Brattleboro, Gov. Peter Shumlin confidently declared that Windham County has an advantage because “we can do cash.”
He was referring to a multimillion-dollar pot of money – the Windham County Economic Development Program – that was created via a shutdown settlement agreement with Vermont Yankee owner Entergy.
As he prepares to leave office two years after the Vernon nuclear plant stopped producing power, Shumlin says he is confident that the regional and state economy is headed in the right direction even without Yankee’s 600-plus jobs in the mix.
And from an energy standpoint, Shumlin contends the state is better off without Vermont Yankee’s 605 megawatts of power production due to a new emphasis on renewables and efficiency.
“There’s no question that running an aging, leaking nuclear power plant beyond its design life was not in Vermont’s best interest,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin never made any secret of his opposition to the nuclear plant that operated for 42 years in his home county.
As a state senator, he led a 2010 vote to block Vermont Yankee’s requested 20-year relicensing. Against a backdrop of tritium leaks at the plant, Yankee shutdown was a key issue in Shumlin’s Democratic gubernatorial campaign that same year.
Shumlin carried that advocacy into the governor’s office, contending Vermonters had lost faith in the plant’s corporate owners – whom he referred to as “Entergy Louisiana.”
During a recent interview with VTDigger.org, Shumlin said his opposition to Vermont Yankee was based partly on tritium leak scandal. But he also believed that the plant should not operate beyond its initial, 40-year licensure period.
“I felt strongly like, in a state where your word is your bond, the deal had been changed after it had been agreed to,” Shumlin said. “It should be retired on time as promised to Vermonters.”
Ultimately, the state didn’t close the plant. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a renewed license for Vermont Yankee in 2011, and a federal judge subsequently ruled that the facility could continue to operate beyond a March 21, 2012 shutdown date that had been set by the state.
When Entergy in 2013 announced Vermont Yankee’s planned closure, the company cited financial reasons including the price of natural gas and the costs of operating the plant. There was no mention of the state’s long-standing opposition.
Shumlin, however, still believes that the state played a role. He says it’s no coincidence that Vermont Yankee’s closure came first in a series of nuclear shutdown announcements for Entergy.
“It was a very unhappy relationship” between the state and Entergy, Shumlin said. “And I’m sure that when they made the decision based on economics … to shut a plant down, we had a shiny gold star on our heads.”
Whatever the reason for Entergy’s decision, Shumlin believes it was for the best.
As he exits the governor’s office after three terms, Shumlin often touts his track record in boosting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Though the state still buys nuclear power from a plant in New Hampshire, Shumlin says emphasizing renewables and energy efficiency is the right thing to do environmentally and economically.
“We are an example of how to reduce your carbon footprint and do electric generation right,” he said.
The governor said the loss of Vermont Yankee employees has been “a heartbreaking and tragic thing for all of us to go through,” and he said he is not denying the economic impact of the plant’s closure.
At the same time, though, he sees renewable energy as an economic engine for the future. “Now, in Vermont, if you have 17 people in a room, one of them is working in the renewable energy sector,” Shumlin said. “And they tend to be young, vigorous, excited about living in Vermont.”
Shumlin says he’s also proud of a 2013 shutdown agreement the state struck with Entergy. The deal allocated at least $2.6 million in Entergy money for clean energy development activities “in or for the benefit of Windham County.”
Some of that cash has gone toward a wood-heat initiative, and another $400,000 recently was awarded to start a renewable energy grant program in the county.
The state settlement deal also committed Entergy to paying $2 million a year for five years to boost economic development in Windham County. The resulting Windham County Economic Development Program has funded a variety of projects including major expansions at Chroma Technologies in Bellows Falls and G.S. Precision and Commonwealth Dairy in Brattleboro.
“This is the kind of economic incentive that Windham County needs to continue to be economically prosperous,” the governor said.
For the most part, the Shumlin administration has been unsuccessful when attempting to intervene in the federally regulated Vermont Yankee decommissioning process. But officials can still point to the 2013 settlement deal with Entergy as an important victory with long-lasting impacts.
Chris Recchia, whom Shumlin appointed in 2012 to lead the Vermont Public Service Department, echoed the governor in praising Entergy’s recent willingness to negotiate with the state.
“I’ve been very pleased with the discussions we had with Entergy in recent years. I think the (2013) settlement was a good outcome for Vermont,” Recchia said.
Like Shumlin, Recchia also believes the state is “better off without relying on (nuclear) power.”
Vernon residents push back
Not everyone shares those sentiments. In Vernon, there remains resentment about the state’s fight against Vermont Yankee and doubt about Shumlin’s economic development efforts.
A few months after Entergy announced Vermont Yankee’s pending closure, Vernon resident Josh Unruh titled his first batch of home brew “Shumlin’s Shutdown.” The bottle’s label proclaimed that the beer had been “brewed in Montpelier by politics and ignorance.”
Now a member of Vernon Selectboard, Unruh’s ire hasn’t abated. He says the Shumlin administration’s focus on closing Vermont Yankee “was a short-sighted view.”
As for the impact on Vernon, “my personal view is, I don’t think they care a whole lot,” Unruh said of state officials.
State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, says that impact has been “devastating to Vernon and to Windham County in general.”
In addition to employment and tax revenue losses, Hebert said, “people have lost a lot of friends. And we’ve lost a lot of brainpower and a lot of volunteers for organizations in Windham County.”
Hebert isn’t sure the state played much role in Vermont Yankee’s shutdown. But he believes state officials could have done much more to prevent it.
“Had (Shumlin) made efforts as he did with other businesses to keep them in the state, something could have been done to make it easier to have stayed here,” Hebert said.
Hebert and Unruh also question the effectiveness and intent of the Windham County Economic Development Program. That money, they argue, should be doing more to boost entrepreneurs and small businesses – especially in Vernon.
Shumlin doesn’t shy away from criticism, acknowledging that he has denied grants and loans to many applicants because he didn’t feel they had enough economic impact.
“I didn’t want it frittered away on projects that all had good intentions but wouldn’t have resulted necessarily in real jobs for hard-working people,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin touts decommissioning plan
Economics aren’t the only beef some have with Shumlin’s Vermont Yankee policies.
The Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group New England Coalition won’t give the governor a ringing endorsement as he departs. Coalition trustee and staff member Clay Turnbull argues that Shumlin and his staff should have worked to set site restoration standards and to ensure spent nuclear fuel was stored in a different location than the one Entergy chose.
“It would have been so much better if his legacy was that the waste was much farther from the Connecticut River,” Turnbull said.
While Turnbull said the state deserves some credit for opposing Vermont Yankee’s continued operation, he doesn’t think that was a deciding factor in Entergy’s shutdown decision.
“Every bit of resistance made it easier for them to throw in the towel,” Turnbull said. “But ultimately, if there was money to be made, they would still be operating. That’s the bottom line.”
State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, is more complimentary of Shumlin’s Vermont Yankee work. While there were “a lot of factors” contributing to shutdown, Mrowicki said, “I don’t think Peter’s contribution can be ignored.”
Asked whether he agreed with Shumlin’s declaration that the state is better off without Vermont Yankee, Mrowicki responded that he would “have to say yes, in the long term.”
“The big question mark is, will it get cleaned up … on time and on budget,” Mrowicki said.
The answer to that question may lie with New York-based NorthStar Group Services, which has promised to have most of the Vermont Yankee site cleared by 2030 if state and federal regulators approve its purchase of the property.
Shumlin won’t have a direct role in vetting that sale. But he said the NorthStar deal has the potential to ensure that the plant won’t “sit there rotting” for decades before cleanup work begins.
“If they can really get …. that plant decommissioned as quickly as possible so that we can (develop) that site for another use, that’s a huge help to Windham County,” Shumlin said.