Vernon has a lot at stake in the proposed sale of the shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
When the plant was running, the town’s economic well-being — as well as its very identity — was tied up in VY. But now Vernon’s in the middle of a multi-year exercise to try to figure out how it can survive the closure and decommissioning of Vermont Yankee.
Corey Daniels has been working at Vermont Yankee for more than 20 years, and he said the control room of the nuclear power plant used to be a pretty busy place.
“It’s where the reactor would be controlled from. It’s where the control rods would be operated from," Daniels said. “It’s where the recirculation pumps would be adjusted. So when the plant was operating, crew — on shift — was about 10 people in the control room at any given moment.”
When Vermont Yankee was shut down in December 2014, it was turned off right in that control room.
And over the past four years as the plant’s nuclear fuel was moved out, Daniels said, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission required two staff members to remain in the control room.
“Now, as you can see by looking around, there’s no one in here,” he said.
At one point, more than 600 people worked here at Vermont Yankee. Today there’s only few dozen left.
If the state of Vermont approves the pending sale, at some point next year they’ll start tearing the plant down — though it might take up to 10 years to decommission the plant and cart away all the metal and concrete and glass.
And the town of Vernon wants to know what’s next after the plant is gone.
Some people in town want to develop the road that leads down to VY to create a village center, which Vernon has never really had.
And the town is working with NorthStar Services, the company that wants to decommission VY, to figure out what to do with the more than 100 acres around the plant.
They’ve had plenty of meetings and studies, and they’re trying to create a vision for Vernon.
Bob Spencer, chairman of the planning commission, said at a recent meeting that he had some reservations about a plan to try to bring in more housing.
“In a way it’s so pie-in-the-sky, with re-routing roads and multi-family and single family and ... some commercial,” Spencer said. “So my takeaway was that ... although they look good and it sounds, like, good, is it really in the best interest financially of the town?"
Vernon lost a major economic engine and the town’s tax base took a huge hit when the plant closed.
But beyond that, Vernon is also dealing with all of the same demographic challenges as many other towns in Vermont: Young folks are leaving, the school population isn’t growing, there’s no future in retail and bringing new industry to town is a lot of work.
Vernon Selectboard Chairman Josh Unruh said the plant closing has given the town a lot to think about.
“As a town we put a lot of time and energy into understanding what this means to us,” Unruh said. “Because it’s new to us. You know, we’re all laypeople. We all know the nuclear industry just from it being here. But decommissioning is totally new and we wanted to make sure that everything that was happening throughout this process was going to be what was best for Vernon.”
When Vermont Yankee first closed, Vernon went through a very rough patch where the town lost a million dollars in tax revenue and they had to cut their police department and some staff and services.
But longtime Vernon resident and former state Rep. Patty O’Donnell says the dust has settled somewhat. Time has healed most of the wounds, and O’Donnell said the people in Vernon are trying to move on.
“You know when you wake up one day and your whole world has changed, it’s an adjustment,” said O’Donnell. “It takes a little while to try to figure out what direction you’re going to go. And we’re on our way to a new future."
"We don’t have the anger and frustration that we had in the very beginning," continued O'Donnell. "And we’ve done it. We’re surviving. So, you know, I think that’s a big thing for the town of Vernon. And I’m very proud of the people in this town.”
Under the original plan it could have taken decades to take down the idle nuclear plant, but NorthStar Services says it can do it in less than 10 years.
Vernon fully supports the proposed sale, and the town is very eager to see it happen. State regulators are expected to make a decision on the sale of Vermont Yankee soon.