Conversations on economic adjustment and resilience in the context of nuclear decommissioning

A program of Smart Growth America (SGA), the Nuclear Communities team supports nuclear host communities through building capacity and developing resiliency plans, gathering a wealth of information and perspectives along the way. While each host community has its own unique set of circumstances, they all have one thing in common: preparation is needed to be resilient in the face of closures. This blog post is part of a series documenting the Nuclear Communities Technical Assistance team’s lessons learned throughout the project and highlights many of the issues that will be addressed in the Nuclear Communities Forum.

The Nuclear Community Forum highlights the path for nuclear host communities to use to achieve long-term economic prosperity in a post-nuclear facility future

As of March 2022, there are 21 nuclear power reactors currently undergoing decommissioning under the supervision of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Due to a wide range of factors including national security and energy policy, the majority of the nuclear power plants in America may close in the next few decades. In fact, all nuclear power reactors are designed to have an operational life cycle of 20-40 years due to standard safety regulations, which means that most currently operating nuclear power plants will likely have ceased operations by 2050.

In September 2020, the Smart Growth America (SGA) team and three other organizations partnered with the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to connect with nuclear host communities and support their resilience and adaptation strategies in face of a local facility’s shutdown. One of these efforts consists of a Community of Practice (CoP) that has been gathering local leaders, practitioners, and other community stakeholders to establish a common identity and identify mechanisms to harness available tools and resources that contribute to the long-term economic, social, and environmental prosperity of the communities and regions that host nuclear facilities. While each nuclear host community has its own unique set of circumstances, there is immense value in creating a space to talk and think through these issues with other folks who might understand them more than anyone else.

The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining 

To frame the issue of nuclear decommissioning in the context of the national energy transition, Chris Zimmerman, vice president of economic development at SGA, reinforces that “there is a limited design life for each of these plants, meaning that all will close at some point–representing a substantial loss of income and revenue in the local community.” These complex situations present communities with an uphill battle as they consider how to respond to the loss of so much tax revenue and a skilled workforce that may retire or leave town after the power facility’s closure.

Community leaders are finding it difficult to follow existing funding opportunities and are thus discouraged from submitting applications to receive supportive resources, especially given the prevalence of insufficient local capacity to anticipate and make a plan for these impacts. Another common challenge is that, given the deep connections between a community and the nuclear facility it hosts, engaging stakeholders and community members in a conversation around planning for a future without the plant can be a barrier in itself. Without a clear understanding of the technical aspects of the decommissioning process, available resources and funding opportunities, or the long-term impacts on their community, many nuclear host communities are having a difficult time dealing with the prospect of closure and planning for the future.

“Net fiscal impact of new development is far more likely to be positive if that development is based on smart growth principles.  These principles apply to every scale of human community – whether in a major metropolitan area or a small town in a rural setting.”

– Chris Zimmerman

If we have learned anything throughout the time we’ve been working on these projects, it is that it is never too early to plan for economic resilience and diversification. Regardless of industry, the departure of a dominant local employer doesn’t just represent a blow to the corporation—it often imposes a series of significant economic challenges on the local community. As we’ve reported in the past, these plants don’t typically account for the majority of the local workforce but they often contribute a significantly larger portion of the local revenue through property taxes, payroll and income taxes, and other sources that support the local budget.

“Communities need to think about what other assets they have and how they can leverage them to create more opportunities for the plant, before, during, and after nuclear plant closure.”

– Chris Zimmerman

There’s no easy answer, but communities can exponentially increase their chance of long-term success by developing a strategy for economic and fiscal sustainability—including opportunities for diversification and expansion—and an efficient plan for deploying any relief aid they can get from the federal or state government. “Every community is better off if they have a diverse economic portfolio,” Chris explained. “You don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket. Communities need to think about what other assets they have and how they can leverage them to create more opportunities for the plant, before, during, and after nuclear plant closure.” Smart growth principles can be the route to ensuring a post-nuclear facility closure future is sustainable environmentally, economically, and fiscally. But the first thing that has to happen is preparation. 

Confronting the reality of the eventual closure of a plant creates an opportunity for a community to plan for a more sustainable future.  It is a chance to correct past mistakes, or avoid those made in other places.  Ensuring a post-closure future that is sustainable in every sense—environmentally, economically, fiscally, etc. – requires applying smart growth principles.  It means recognizing the market realities of the 21st century, including the growing value of walkable communities with a mix of uses and the demand for a greater variety of housing choice.  And recognizing that these realities apply in small towns as well as big cities.

These conversations are the origin story of the Nuclear Communities Forum, a one-of-a-kind virtual event that will introduce community leaders and planners to a series of tools and strategies that can be used in order to make the economic adjustment process an inclusive and attainable one for every community–regardless of type, size, or geographic region. As a continuation of the CoP, the Nuclear Communities Forum will serve as a space for knowledge sharing, focusing intention and objectives on the places that need it the most so that they are not alone in the decommissioning process.

Join the conversation on April 1, 2022 from 11:00am-3:15pm ET and tune in over the next few weeks to learn more about the Nuclear Communities Team’s accomplishments and opportunities.

Economic development Events Technical assistance Uncategorized