Three years ago, on Dec. 29, 2014, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Generating Station in Vernon, Vt. prematurely closed for good.
Like Three Mile Island, which will close in 2019 without legislative action, the Yankee plant was struggling financially in a market that didn’t properly value nuclear energy.
As Vernon’s selectboard chairman, the equivalent of a county commissioner, I can attest how the plant’s closure has negatively impacted the area in many ways.
When Vermont Yankee opened in 1972, it created economic opportunity for Southeast Vermont. It brought us good-paying jobs, low energy prices, cleaner air and a stable tax revenue. The plant’s property taxes drastically improved our public services and our school, which became a source of pride for the community.
The plant was a source of economic vitality we had grown to depend on. When it closed, the jobs and the tax revenue disappeared – and have not returned.
Vermont Yankee’s 600 employees, most of whom had highly-technical skills, were forced to retire or move to find similar jobs in other states. Not only did we lose volunteers, Little League coaches, and good neighbors, but housing prices in the area dropped.
I, along with the rest of town’s leadership, had to make some gut-wrenching decisions in response. We raised property taxes by 20 percent in an attempt to replace some of the tax revenue. Additionally, we had to cut our municipal budget by 20 percent, which included eliminating our police department.
The plant closure’s effects rippled outward.
Electricity rates in New England skyrocketed as the plant’s energy, which previously represented over half of the energy in Vermont, disappeared.
The region also saw a 2.5 percent increase in carbon emissions – in just one year – as the energy generated by emissions-free nuclear power was replaced by coal and hydro.
Three years later, the community around Vernon is still trying to find its way forward without Vermont Yankee. As we rebuild, I want our story to serve as a cautionary tale: do not underestimate the positive social, economic, and environmental benefits provided by nuclear facilities.
What happened in Vernon doesn’t have to happen in Central Pennsylvania or other communities with nuclear facilities in the commonwealth.
The U.S. Department of Energy is pushing a plan to boost grid resiliency by aiding plants that keep power onsite, like nuclear. Even the federal tax overhaul might offer some relief to struggling nuclear plants.
However, action on the federal level is not enough. Pennsylvania’s legislators must still do their part and recognize the environmental benefits of nuclear energy.
Some combination of policy reform at all levels of government is needed. I urge Pennsylvania citizens to advocate for it, before it’s too late.
Josh Unruh is a community leader in Vernon, Vt. He serves as selectboard chairman, the president of the Vernon Recreation Department board, the Vernon Assistant Emergency Management director, the Vernon Town Picnic coordinator, the co-founder of the Vernon Annual Tree Lighting celebration, and chair of the Vernon War Memorial Committee.