Moving Forward and Living Well

By Meredith Angwin

In August, Entergy announced that it would close Vermont Yankee at the end of this fuel cycle. The plant certainly faced challenging economics.

However, I think it is wrong to simply say “economics” caused the decision. One of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin’s major goals was to close Vermont Yankee. Shumlin was always eager to see the end of a major negative presence in Vermont: the presence of the entity he often called “Entergy Louisiana.”

The_Goose_That_Laid_the_Golden_Eggs_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19994 137x200“Be careful what you wish for.” Considering the amount of money that Vermont Yankee has contributed in payroll and taxes, I suspect Shumlin may now be thinking a bit about that old adage. Along these lines, I recommend Margaret Harding’s insightful parable about the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.

Between the economic and government pressures, Entergy made a decision.  The plant will close, and people will be laid off. People at the plant are fearful of the future. People are angry at the Shumlin administration. But what is next? What lies beyond anger and fear?

The  next step is for plant workers to arrange to live happily. This will not be easy, and it will be harder for some than for others. But plant employees will move on, and they will live well.

Fear of the future is reasonable. Despair is not reasonable.

The lists come out

About two weeks ago, the planned closing of Vermont Yankee became more painfully immediate to the people at the plant. That was the day the “lists came out.” I wrote about this in my blog post Paint It Black.

The “lists” were names of people who would work through the end of fuel transfer operations (approximately January 2015) and the names of others who would be asked to stay longer to estimate decommissioning or to provide security, etc. Most employees at the plant were on the list of people with the shorter time of employment.  The “day the lists came out” was a very sad day, and an event not covered in any local paper. As a friend of mine said:  It was a day swept under the rug and not visible to most people in Vermont.

Vermont Yankee people

Although I have never worked there, I identify very closely with the people at Vermont Yankee. As a matter of fact, when I heard recently that Exelon announced that it might close nuclear plants in the Midwest, my reaction had nothing much to do with the fate of the nuclear industry. My initial reaction was basically that this would affect the job search for the people who work at Vermont Yankee.  Let’s look at different groups of workers at the plant.

Older workers
Comments on Facebook and on my blog posts describe the difficult situation of older workers at Vermont Yankee. Some of these people have strong ties to the area, have kids in high school, and live in homes whose value is decreasing as highly paid people leave the area. Everybody at Vermont Yankee is in a difficult situation, but the situation of such older workers is the worst, in my opinion.

Non-nuclear workers
Another group with difficulties will be workers who do not have nuclear-specific skills. Many people (administrative staff, for example) could do similar work at many places besides Vermont Yankee. Unfortunately, Windham County is a poor area, and these people will be unlikely to get jobs at a similar pay level to Vermont Yankee. According to census figures, median household income in Windham County is somewhat below the average for Vermont, even with Vermont Yankee in operation ($51K versus $54K). Will these workers stay or move away? Either way, they will face difficult choices.

Younger workers
Many younger workers will have to move away, but will basically be all right. Comments on the Save Vermont Yankee Facebook page show that young people have already begun pulling up stakes. Young people are heading to other power plants in friendlier places.

Adversaries and adversity

What has it been like for workers at Vermont Yankee?

King Henry V might describe it: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

That’s the upbeat version. The downbeat version is that when people are treated badly because they belong to a certain group (for example, they work at Vermont Yankee), they tend to be loyal to each other. They become a band of brothers and sisters. They have a common enemy.

killingusall c 200x182

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meeting in Brattleboro, May 2012

At Vermont Yankee, the enemy wasn’t just the people in the death masks waving signs near the entrance to the plant. It was also the child at the gymnastics class telling another child that her father was a killer for working at the plant. (These Vermont Yankee parents stopped taking this child to gymnastics, and found another sport for her to participate in.) In 2010, I described various incidents in my post Three Views of an Outage, and there are more incidents in the comment section.

In that post, I compared a common attitude in Brattleboro, Vt.,  toward plant workers as almost the same as some attitudes toward African-Americans in the Old South. The idea being that one can say anything bad about “those people,” and one can say anything one wants to “those people”… because they don’t count. Several plant workers agreed with me on this assessment.

shut down c 225x320

Brattleboro Green Opponent Rally, April 2012

That post about the outage was written in 2010. In 2013, the situation had not changed. When Entergy announced that the plant was closing, far too many people celebrated.

In that post, I quoted an opponent who wrote a letter to the editor, defending his right to celebrate the plant’s closing. He claimed that Vermont Yankee’s contributions to the area weren’t real—he proved this through the use of quotation marks.

THE “JOBS” ARGUMENT is, in my opinion, a fear-mongering ploy by the wealthy to scare communities into submission… Do Entergy “jobs” make our lives better and its “charitable giving” add to the sustainability and happiness of our communities?

Adversity and solidarity

Yes, there was a lot of adversity near Vermont Yankee. As usual, this attitude led to solidarity among the people who were discriminated against.

At the time, this led me to a thought about my childhood. I remember asking my mother about why Judaism had survived so long. I expected the same answer I heard in Hebrew School: reverence for the Torah, etc. My mother surprised me by saying that, in her opinion, part of the answer for Jewish cultural survival was the existence of anti-Semitism.

Jewish people supported each other and Judaism because… we had no choice. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”?

Living well

patty O'Donnell, Ellen Merkle, and monk from Grafton Peace Pagoda, NY

Patty O’Donnell, Ellen Merkle, and monk from Grafton Peace Pagoda, NY

What will happen, now that the plant is closing? The focus has to be on the future, and on living well. If you don’t mind the word “revenge,” you can use the old saying that “living well is the best revenge.”

For younger people, living well probably means getting out of town, taking their lumps on the declining local housing market, and starting anew. Yes, Exelon may (or may not) close some plants, but all plants aren’t closing, and many people at those Exelon plants are retiring. Two years from now, the young people will be saying,  “I miss my old friends from Vermont Yankee, but I am sure happier in this town!”

Older people will probably have a more difficult time. I don’t want to downplay this. Some of the problem is external. In my opinion, there is prejudice against older workers, no matter what the hiring agencies say. Some of the problem is internal. Older people may see the loss of a job and community as a betrayal of their life-long work and plans. They may be less interested in starting again or going somewhere new and exciting. For an older person, a loss is frequently not just a “bump in the road.”

Still, there are options.

One option would be to spend less time working, but stay in the nuclear industry. Perhaps outage work or temp work, while continuing to live in the same house? I don’t have the answers. I just think that with the nuclear workforce tilting older, outage work and temp work should be available to older workers, as full-time workers retire.

Non-nuclear workers will undoubtedly make very individual decisions, depending on their age, whether they have family connections to the area, etc.

Let’s face it—go or stay, the Vermont Yankee plant closing is not a good thing. Everybody will have to make changes in their lives. Change is hard. Sometimes change is for the better. Sometimes it isn’t. Everyone at that plant is smart and resilient, no matter what his or her age, and I think that the future will work out well for all of them.

Despair is not reasonable

Fran Gerard, local Vermont Yankee supporter

Fran Gerard, local Vermont Yankee supporter

It is reasonable to be angry at mean-spirited people in Vermont and neighboring states. It is reasonable to be angry at the state administration for its policy of harassing Vermont Yankee and attempting to close it. Now that the plant is closing, it is reasonable for the workers to have a certain level of fear of the future.

But the nuclear industry will survive (plants are being built all across the globe) and nuclear workers are resilient. Many Vermont Yankee people will leave the area, and some will stay. In my opinion, for both groups, despair is not reasonable.

The best future is a future in which you live well. Vermont is not the only place to live well. It’s not the only beautiful state in America, and it is not friendly to nuclear workers. Most people at Vermont Yankee can probably do better somewhere else.

______________________

Meredith-AngwinMeredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters.  She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).  Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division.  She is an inventor on several patents. 

Angwin formerly served as a commissioner in Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project.  She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

14 Responses to Moving Forward and Living Well

  1. Howard Shaffer

    Great post.
    Having been downsized twice from the nuclear business, once from a multi-utility engineering services company, and once from a plant engineering staff due to a merger, I know what it feels like. LOUSEY!!!

    A very good thing do is prepare a resume aimed at someone who knows NOTHING about nuclear power or the electric utility business. List and describe your skills in generic terms.
    Operators: capable and licensed to operate large, multimillion dollar process plants, containing very large and expensive equipment. (The chemical and petroleum industry is like this.)

    You may not use this resume this way, but it will focus your thinking.

  2. >> But the nuclear industry will survive (plants are being built all across the globe) <> A very good thing do is prepare a resume aimed at someone who knows NOTHING about nuclear power or the electric utility business. <<

    But why can't nuclear professions come out and say make that "resume" be a couple of TV and newspaper ads??

  3. Gitin Daboot

    Buffing up your resume doesn’t do much good when you’re pushing 60. Doing outage or temp work generally means you have to hit the road and live the life of a nuclear gypsy, at least while you’re out there doing the roadie thing. That is generally a young person’s job, someone with few or no ties that bind. I guess older people could do it, but it’s a lot tougher and harder to get people to hire you. They generally want young bucks, not burned-out laid off employees.

    I guess we’ll live well until the severance runs out. I’ve read that foreclosure takes a few months, maybe up to six or seven before they put you out on the street, so maybe we can make it to the end of the school year. My main priority will be to keep paying the premiums on my life insurance. The two-year exclusion is up next July, so we need to keep it going at least that long. And I guess there’s always Medicaid for the wife and kids. Despair? I wish it were that good.

  4. Where did all the antinuclear “stuff” in Vermont come from? It must not have always been there, or VY would never exist in the first place. When did it start and by who? I can’t believe our friend Arnie has that much clout. Other places don’t seem to have this hostility. I could see why California might but Vermont? Where its cold and people cook electrically?

  5. Oh and Howard,
    Soon Shell is going to start construction of a “cracker” plant that will break down natural gas molecules into ethylene that is used to make plastics and other things. You might want to apply to them, the place will cost 5-6 Billion and be very complex. They are doing this because of the Marcellus Shale gas here in PA/OH/WV.

  6. Talk about distortion of reality – questioning whether the loss of “jobs” will affect the economy! Gotta wonder where (and how) the author of that comment lives. I think reality is starting to strike home, Meredith – when the Town of Vernon voted to close its police department, even the local daily newsroom – folks who have been following VY for years – was caught off guard. “Really?,” they thought (see Brattleboro Reformer editorial from this AM.) And now the bickering is starting over who should control the settlement money, see Rutland Herald editorial from yesterday. I can only say to the people who have wanted Vermont Yankee to leave: “you bid the gravy train goodbye, folks. Now it’s time to think about the next meal, sans gravy.” And we’re not “just” talking about jobs, we’re talking about low-cost, low-carbon, reliable power – how will Vermont recoup that loss? And how about the lost millions in tax revenue?

  7. Thank you all for your comments. I want to respond to two of them.

    Gitin Daboot: Your comment frightened and distressed me. Your situation is difficult, but “the two-year exclusion” on your life insurance? Usually, such an exclusion is an exclusion against paying in the case of suicide. I hope that suicide is NOT what you mean! You are a father and a husband, not merely a paycheck. Vermont Yankee closing can be a huge setback, but you are in a family and they need YOU, not a life-insurance check. Families can survive financial setbacks. Families are families.

    Also, I had a suicide in my family, and I can tell you right now it is the WORST thing you can do to the survivors. Suicide hurts the survivors far more than any insurance check can cover. Your family may spend years wondering if they could have prevented it, been more supportive, etc. And they will be angry at you for choosing to leave them. An older person in my family did this, and I know what I am talking about.

    A comment section in a blog post is a bad place to discuss such things. I am at mjangwin at gmail and feel free to write me. However, you have someone local you can speak to about your feelings, that would be even better. Being laid off does NOT make you worthless and better-off-dead.

    Guy: Thank you for your comment. The jobs-in-quotation-marks comment was made in a letter by Chad Simmons of the Safe and Green Campaign. It was published in the Brattleboro newspaper, The Commons. In fairness to that newspaper, the editor was shocked at the Simmons letter. He and I exchanged some emails about it. The editor is no fan of VY, but he really did not like that letter.

    Yes, and now we see the Reformer shocked at Vernon’s cutbacks, and others fighting over who deserves to spend the ten million dollars in transitional funds. I am referring to the articles you quoted. It’s ugly, just plain ugly. I am not going to be any friend to Entergy by saying this, since Entergy has put “retention bonuses” in place for a purpose. But I am going to say it anyway. My opinion and here it is:

    Getting out of Vermont is probably the best choice for most of the people at VY.

  8. James Joosten

    Gitin Daboot: I’d like to second Meredith’s comments and concerns. Please do not feel despair. Often times, what looks to be a disaster turns out to be a blessing in disguise. The fact that you worked successfully in one of the world’s most high tech industries also speaks very highly to your talents and capabilities. Even at age 60, there are plenty of new opportunities in the world for you. Just take a deep breath, think positive, and put your brain to work. And keep in mind that there are plenty of spin-off areas to work in. For example, last Summer one of the major oil companies wanted my assistance in adapting nuclear safety and quality assurance concepts to their operations.

    Secondly, I imagine that you will be entitled to unemployment compensation for a period of time.

    Third, with respect to foreclosures, there are a number of options to consider. Its best to talk to your bank or a counsellor before things get way behind, rather than at the time of crisis. Today, banks are more amenable to re-structuring a mortgage in order to keep you in the house and making some type of payment. Its called a “forbearance agreement”; and sometimes they will simply extend your mortgage another 10 years or so in order to make-up for any reduced or missed payments. Banks have learned that it is not wise to force people out and let their underlying asset rot. You can also get a free consult with a bankruptcy attorney. With the right bankruptcy strategy, you can essentially stay in your house without making any mortgage payments for about 2 to 4 years. Sure, if you don’t make mortgage payments, you’ll lose the house in the end. Bankruptcy doesn’t ever prevent that. But it will buy you and your wife considerable time to get your life back on track.

    Finally, keep in mind that there are plenty of people in the world who are far worse off than you are, and who are still pushing on. The para-olympics being just one example. A famous football player once said: “It’s not how many times that you get knocked down that matters, but rather how many times you pick yourself back up.” Great players get knocked down more times than poor players – simply because they stay in the game longer. Hang in there.

    As for VY itself, it had a great run and perhaps it had reached the true end of its useful, economic life. Only the owners know for sure. But one thing that we all can be sure about, is that the nation needs a balanced energy portfolio going forward. For national security reasons, we need a national energy strategy that ensures we have a diverse MIX of energy resources. We can’t put all of our eggs into one basket. Another way of saying this, is that our national energy strategy cannot be simply driven by the fuel market of the moment. Our policymakers need a longer term strategy to ensure that sufficient subsidies exist to preserve our options, and they need to make sure that existing subsidies work correctly in the electricity markets; and make sure that the electricity markets support our national security concerns. Right now they don’t.

    Finally, I’d argue that more nuclear plants like VY will retire in the months ahead, if you & I do not write our Congressman, and if the industry continues to confront radiophobia in the public in an ineffective manner. Radiophobia is a decades old problem whose known cure is education. We live in the Information Age now, don’t we? Why not challenge YPE and the Young Nuclear Professionals to take on this information challenge via social media and other devices?

  9. GettingCanned

    So it looks like I’ll get maybe $300 a week unemployment for 26 weeks. I am trying to negotiate a 20-week severance but don’t know if that will happen, it may end up being shorter. The lender says they will do an interest-only loan for the mortgage but we still have to pay taxes, insurance, and interest. Can’t manage that once the severance runs out. But it looks like we can keep food on the table and the lights on and the insurance paid up for a little while.

    I guess that takes us into about May of 2015 before we’re out on the street with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Once child will be graduated but still one in school. No money for college tuition. The welfare office people said we can put the one child on Medicaid/SNAP since he is of age and will be essentially indigent. I can’t get SNAP because of savings (annuity) but I’d rather pass that on to heirs than spend it down.

    Bright future, huh? Not looking forward to being a 60-something pizza delivery driver (which I can’t get anyway). I hope Scumlin’s happy that he ruined us.

  10. GettingCanned

    I am glad the future looks somewhat brighter! I am not saying “the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades” but at least you have a plan for a stretch in the future.

    I had another thought. Can you get a job at another nuclear plant, maybe not as high as job as you have now, but one that pays very well compared to driving a pizza car? This would be in another part of the country or at Seabrook or Millstone. You could rent a room there and visit the family on weekends or at breaks. You would do this just long enough (two years?) for your kids to get through the local schools. It would sort of be like a military family situation. A difficult but temporary separation.

    After that, with fewer obligations, you would have more choices, such as moving to a low-cost state and taking up a “retirement” job.

    These are just random thoughts. I am so glad things are looking better!

    In family life, things keep changing. What you feel you have to do for the family three years from now will be quite different from the situation today.

    I understand how you feel about college for the kids. However, you can only help them as much as you can help them. You aren’t a failure if your kids go to community colleges for two years and then look for a job that pays night-school tuition. Your love and EMOTIONAL support are the important things to your family. That is what will encourage them to succeed.

    I remember we had quite a struggle to send our kids to college (we managed) and I envied one of their friends whose father was a major executive. College money was no object for that child. I envied that family right up to the time when the child dropped out of college due to alcohol addiction. (Later, the child turned around and is doing great.) I am just saying the statement: “I can pay your tuition” is not necessarily the most important factor. “I love you and I support your choices”–that’s the key statement.

  11. Jobless in Vernon

    Actually, it’s more of a stay of execution than a pardon. The sentence is still going to be carried out, just later, not sooner.

    Seabrook showed little interest. Same with Millstone (although going there would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire from what I’ve heard). Can’t blame them. There are plenty of younger people coming out of the Navy or engineering school who will work for a lot longer for a lot less than me. Who wants to hire a 60-something they know won’t be around after a few years after they go through operator training? Training an SRO is a significant investment for a company. They want some period of employment afterward to get a decent ROI. They aren’t going to get that with older workers.

    The “pizza delivery” comment was gallows humor. No one will hire a 60-something ex-professional for that kind of work. They know as soon as something better comes along you’re going to take it. Same with riding the garbage truck, or glad-handing at WalMart.

    The real tragedy here is families. My kid worked his tail off in school to qualify for admission to a good school so he could go on to med school. That was his dream. And he did get into good schools (offers from Brown and BC, among others). We could afford that while working a good job. Not so on unemployment. And going to a crummy community college and night school isn’t going to get him admission to many med schools, unless its Papa Doc’s Med School/Clinic down in Haiti. So now I have to tell my kid that people like Scumlin have cost him his dream as well as mine.

    People like Scumlin and Sanders and outsider anti-nuclear scumbags think they are punishing a corporation like Entergy for daring to operate a nuclear plant in Vermont. Maybe they think they are punishing people like me who choose to work in this field. But the people who are being really hurt go beyond those, and reach into and demolish the most cherished dreams of many good, bright young people out there in families who are being destroyed by these rats. I don’t know how scumbags like them can sleep at night, but I’m sure they’ll find a way and make their own families comfortable and happy while they ruin many others.

  12. PendingLayoff

    Well, thank you all for listening to my lamentations. I’m sure you’re all tired by now of the ashes and sackcloth. I guess one thing that I’ve learned is that a lifetime of work evidently means very little in terms of loyalty and reward and support when the agitators and useless politicians come after you and your job to further solidify their political support. I’m not sure that is what the Founders intended when they established our form of government, but today, it is what it is. Its basically become social Darwinism turned political, and if you’re young and strong you might have a chance to survive, otherwise it’s the Devil take the hindmost.

  13. James Greenidge

    PendingLayoff,
    I sympathize and hope for what best for you and your family. For what it’s worth, perhaps in your “free time” you can ply that justified fire in your belly to help do that which the general nuclear community/industry won’t do even to save itself; Strike back at the anti-nuclear and FUDmister crowd for your career’s cause and brother colleagues all over. Don’t let them waltz away laughing with champagne unscathed. Unfortunately I haven’t the funds and resources to sic at them myself, though ruefully, quite a few do but don’t.

    Good luck!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  14. Pending Layoff

    This makes me so sad. I wish the best for your son. Don’t give up on him going to the good schools. When you have a small income, he is eligible for scholarships and loans. Also, the financial aid people take the parent’s age into account and they make some allowance for the need for retirement funds.

    Also, sometimes there are special sources. You need a good counselor for this. For example, my husband had a college scholarship which was only for the descendants of Americans who had served in Europe during World War I. Believe it or not, my husband’s father had served! (My husband was born very late in his parents’ lives, when they were in their forties.) Anyhow, you need a good counselor for your son. There’s all sorts of stuff like that out there: scholarships that only a limited number of people can qualify for. Don’t give up.

    I am thinking of you. I wish things were different. Please keep in touch through email or the blog or something. I am mjangwin at gmail.

    Best,
    Meredith