A decommissioned Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station, near Sacramento, California. (Photo by Jack Freer/Overland Photography.)

As anyone who lives or works near any kind of power plant knows, these utilities do much more than just generating electricity to keep the lights on.  They also serve as major economic drivers in the often rural communities and regions where they are located by providing high-paying jobs, sustaining school and municipal budgets through taxes, and creating additional indirect jobs in other sectors. Power plants often influence a community’s identity and establish a sense of place and shared experience.

Though much of the national conversation in the United States around energy transition has focused on coal and oil, the communities that host nuclear power plants are also facing serious challenges due to a mix of regulatory, fiscal, and environmental considerations.  

Research published by the Nuclear Decommissioning Collaborative found that over 20 nuclear power sites are in the closure and decommissioning process and five to seven additional plants could shut down within the next several years.  The closure of each of these plants and the ensuing loss of many hundreds of high-wage jobs can lead to significant regional economic impacts

At a minimum, a typical nuclear plant creates approximately $400 million in the annual gross regional product, and the removal of this economic engine produces a potentially devastating impact on rural towns and regions that may not have a diversified economy.  

With funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), our organizations are halfway through a three-year project to provide capacity building, technical assistance, and networking resources to support the national network of nearly 70 nuclear host communities and their surrounding regions.  

Below we outline examples of how communities are preparing for these impacts, as well as offer an invitation to join us virtually on April 1 to continue the discussion about how to make nuclear communities more resilient and prosperous in the face of an uncertain future.  

Tools and Strategies for Nuclear Communities

Depending on the stage of transition, each nuclear host community faces different challenges to find its unique economic resiliency path. Each path requires its own approach and tools, including assessing local and regional assets through a SWOT analysis, researching and data gathering of the local/regional economy to understand economic and industry-specific vulnerabilities, and integrating economic development plans such as a CEDS (Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy) with other regional or state planning initiatives.  

Authentic engagement and outreach in every step of the process is essential to increase awareness and convene stakeholders for broader understanding and leveraging resources and cultivating public/private partnerships.  

Communities are also exploring strategies to address brownfields (former industrialized properties with extensive environmental challenges) and underutilized properties for adaptive reuse that would support new economies, possibly by harnessing existing skillsets from the nuclear industry.  They are assessing current and future infrastructure needs that support new economies or retain existing employers wishing to expand but are constrained by current infrastructure limitations.  Finally, some communities are developing strategic planning efforts such as economic resiliency and recovery plans that lay out clear and intentional goals with specific tasks, timelines, resources, and responsible entities supporting each goal. 

Identifying a path forward using all of the tools available is essential to creating a new economic future, which includes taking advantage of the federal funding that is earmarked for nuclear communities, as well as the now billions of dollars from the recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that offers opportunities for all types of community improvements. 

Federal Funding to Support Economic Development

In fiscal year 2020 and 2021, EDA allocated $13.5 million and $16.5 million respectively through its Nuclear Closure Communities (NCC) program to support nuclear host communities and regions with grant funds to diversify their economies.  

These competitive funds are open to any community that can show impacts of a closure, whether or not the plant is already shuttered, is scheduled to close soon, or still does not have a timetable for decommissioning.  

These funds have been used in a variety of ways, including for water system infrastructure improvements (Plymouth, Massachusets), installation of fiber optic broadband to expand local businesses (Paso Robles, California), development of economic recovery strategies (Van Buren County, Michigan, and Lacey Township, New Jersey), strategies to grow the advanced nuclear technology sector (southeastern US), roadway access improvements to support an expansion project at an international airport (Middletown, Pennsylvania),  and much more.  Overall, these projects are laying the foundation to promote economic diversification and increase community resilience in response to the reality of plant closures.  

Spent Fuel Challenges and Opportunities

While the operation of a nuclear power plant produces a significant economic benefit to the host region, the nuclear-powered generation of electricity also produces nuclear waste.  This waste, in the form of solid cylindrical pellets, is stored in large concrete casks adjacent to each commercial power plant

According to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report, “For more than two decades, [the U.S. Department of Energy] has not fulfilled its contractual responsibility to permanently dispose of commercial spent nuclear fuel…This long-standing impasse has and will continue to cost taxpayers billions of dollars as more spent fuel accumulates at sites across the country.”  

For many reasons (such as the toxic nature of nuclear waste, stigma, regulatory constraints), the presence of this waste continues to prevent any commercial activity or redevelopment from taking place at the sites of these shuttered power plants. Nationally, the total opportunity cost borne by host communities from the presence of this stranded nuclear waste runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. As a means to partially compensate for this loss of revenue, some host communities are seeking to tax the spent fuel canisters themselves to partially offset revenue shortfalls, as well as explore other creative financial options for closed sites.  

Looking Ahead 

While the path to economic resiliency may appear to be daunting and lonely, it’s a similar path traveled by communities addressing brownfields and other energy transitions (closed coal plants, ethanol plants, etc.).  These places all share one thing in common – the potential for “second acts.” These second acts will take many forms and uses, but they will all have a higher purpose because the people involved with their transformation see the potential for “what could be.” 

With funding from EDA, our organizations have formed the Technical Assistance for Nuclear Communities Team to support nuclear host communities free of charge in their efforts to become more economically resilient by diversifying local and regional economies.  As part of this project, the team has created a virtual community of practice where stakeholders from various nuclear host communities (open, decommissioning, closed) can safely gather and discuss issues in a supportive environment. 

On April 1 we will host and facilitate the first virtual Nuclear Communities Forum that will have speakers address various challenges and offer their perspectives, experiences, and solutions to address the various elements of plant closure and recovery.  

Click here to learn more about the Forum, program resources, and community of practice.

Jeri Mintzer, assistant vice president of economic development at Smart Growth America, and Cindy Winland, director of community revitalization at Nuclear Decommissioning Collaborative, co-authored this article.

Jim Hamilton is the executive director at Nuclear Decommissioning Collaborative. Brett Schwartz is the associate director at NADO Research Foundation. Joelle Greenland is senior planning consultant, Center for Creative Land Recycling.

This effort uses federal funds under award ED20HDQ3030068 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the project team and do not necessarily reflect the views of EDA or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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