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Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot.

Lohud.com, the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.

atty O’Donnell, chairwoman of the Vernon, Vermont, select board, had to drastically cut the town’s budget in the wake of the closure of Vermont Yankee. Photo courtesy of LoHud.com.
Patty O’Donnell, chairwoman of the Vernon, Vermont, select board, had to drastically cut the town’s budget in the wake of the closure of Vermont Yankee. Photo courtesy of LoHud.com.

From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

  • Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost the plant employees who used to cross the street from the plant’s gate to help pupils with their math homework.
  • The town of Zion, Illinois, north of Chicago, saw property tax revenues from the twin-unit reactor there drop to $1.6 million from $20 million. Taxes on a typical $300,000 house jumped to $20,000 from $8,000. With the loss of jobs and higher taxes, property values dropped sharply.
  • Crystal River, on the Florida Gulf Coast, took 600 jobs with it when it shut down. The average single-family home has dropped more than 25 percent in value between 2008 and 2016.
  • Kewaunee County in Wisconsin had to raise its sales tax half a percent to make up for lost income when the Kewaunee Power Station closed. Local people desperate for jobs are hoping for a state prison to be built.
  • When San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down north of San Clemente, California, 1,000 jobs disappeared at the plant, and more followed at the local hotels and restaurants where people doing temporary work at the plant used to stay.
The pain of those places will spread to others if plants continue to close. At Indian Point, the newspaper reported, the village of Buchanan expects to lose nearly half its tax revenue, and the local school district will lose $20 million—more than 25 percent—of its budget.

People may not notice so much when the plants are running, but reactors make good industrial neighbors. They are almost silent. Apart from a tendency to cause a mild traffic backup at intersections during shift changes, they don’t have a lot of local impact beyond providing steady, year-round employment and lots of tax revenues. They don’t need mile-long trains rumbling through town, or convoys of trucks bringing in raw materials. And the reactors’ product goes out the door as a hum on the wires.

They are subtle when they run, and painfully obvious when they close. Policymakers concerned with the fate of small towns like Vernon, Vermont, Zion, Illinois and many others ought to take note.

The above is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

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