There are worse things than lost jobs

By JOHN GREENBERG – Published: February 11, 2010

Vermont Yankee proponents rattle on incessantly with spurious claims about the plant’s supposed benefits: low cost power, lack of replacement alternatives and jobs, but we hear little about the costs associated with relicensing. Too bad, ’cause guess who’s gonna pick up the tab?

Thanks to their now-public “last offer,” we finally know what Entergy is proposing: less than 15 percent of the state’s electrical load at a price about 35 percent higher than their previous contract price for 2012, and only if the Enexus spinoff is allowed to proceed. CVPS’s Brian Keefe acknowledged recently that “alternatives to Vermont Yankee power might cost CVPS more than Vermont Yankee would charge, but not much more.” So much for skyrocketing rates and lack of replacements.

But what about all those jobs? According to DPS, Vermont Yankee has 514 employees, about 218 of them Vermonters. Even if VY shuts down in 2012, a large percentage of these workers will still be needed for years to decommission the plant. For perspective, total employment in Vermont in August 2008 was 306,500, meaning that all jobs attributable directly to VY constitute less than one-quarter of 1 percent of Vermont’s workforce.

No one has asked what effect Vermont Yankee has on the other 99.8 percent of Vermont’s workforce. Recent events should prompt us to do so, because there is a relationship, and it is not benign.

As everyone in Vermont who pays attention to the news now knows, Vermont Yankee has a tritium leak. Alas, it isn’t only Vermonters who know this. The story has been well covered both regionally and nationally, so it precisely parallels an incident at a French reactor in the summer of 2008, where small quantities of radioactive material leaked into nearby rivers.

As the Guardian reported: “… The leak rated at level one of the seven-stage scale of nuclear incidents.… Areva’s chief executive, Anne Lauvergeon, called the leak an ‘anomaly’ which posed no danger to humans or the environment.” This was not a unique or unusual incident: “The environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said there were 86 level-one nuclear incidents in France last year and 114 in 2006.” It sounds eerily familiar: a minor incident, no danger to the public or the environment, just one of many, etc.

The ensuing economic damages in France, however, were anything but small: “The area’s image has been so dented that the nearby Rhône Valley winemakers whose label is Coteaux du Tricastin want to change their name. In nearby Bollène, sales of bottled water have soared despite assurances that the tap water is unaffected. Some people have even asked chemists for iodine tablets, recommended for a nuclear emergency.” As one put it, “It was as if there was a shark attack.”

Many Vermont businesses seem blissfully unaware of the threat that continued VY operation could constitute for them. Put bluntly, it is existential: the ongoing operations of this plant constitute a dagger aimed at the very heart of Vermont’s businesses.

What might happen to Vermont’s brand – on which huge portions of our economy depend – if this latest incident at VY takes the same course as its French counterpart? Windham County, which thrives on tourists, might as well put up large “Closed” signs on Routes 91, 9 and 100. It would be unsurprising to see Mount Snow and Stratton shuttered as a consequence, further devastating the regional economy: who wants to ski or play golf in a radiation zone?

The effects would be felt well beyond Windham County. Like their French counterparts, Vermont’s famous brands may have to scramble to change their names to salvage the remnants of their business. Vermont maple syrup would surely loose its caché. Indeed, every Vermont product would now be questionable; maybe Wisconsin and New York cheddar are worth another look. No “natural” product would be unaffected. Vermont organic? Forget it.

Keep in mind, we are not discussing the remote possibility of a catastrophic accident at Vermont Yankee, whose consequences would be unimaginably worse. What we are describing is what is happening right now, as I write. It remains to be seen whether this is a “shark attack” or just another minor incident.

The inconsequential benefits we have been promised from continued operations pale in comparison to the threat to the state’s economy that this plant now so clearly represents. Any savings in electric rates is likely to be too small to measure. In fact, the new contract might well turn out to be above market prices if the power markets recover more slowly or if other market forces keep rates lower than anticipated.

If the plant is closed and in-state efficiency and power are chosen to replace it, the alternatives would mean far more Vermont jobs. The few jobs lost will be more than offset by new jobs in the “green” economy. That’s how a capitalist economy works: most folks don’t mourn the loss of the horse and buggy industry.

Put bluntly, it’s time to stop worrying about their jobs, and start worrying about yours. Likewise, Vermont business owners should be less concerned with their solidarity with Vermont business than with preserving their own enterprises. The sharks are circling, and in a recession like this one, they’re especially hungry.

John Greenberg has owned and operated The Bear Bookshop in Marlboro, Vermont since 1975

Clairifying the problems of Nuclear Power in the Green Mountain State and beyond