WISCASSET, Maine — In a wooded area behind a camouflage-clad guard holding an assault rifle, dozens of hulking casks packed with radioactive waste rest on concrete pads — relics of the shuttered nuclear plant that once powered the region and made this fishing town feel rich.
In the 17 years since Maine Yankee began dismantling its reactors and shedding its 600 workers, this small, coastal town north of Portland has experienced drastic changes: property taxes have spiked by more than 10 times for the town’s 3,700 residents, the number living in poverty has more than doubled as many professionals left, and town services and jobs have been cut.
“I have yet to meet anyone happy that Maine Yankee is gone,” said Laurie Smith, the town manager. “All these years later, we’re still feeling the loss of jobs, the economic downturn, and the huge tax increases.”
Such words are a caution to residents of Vernon, Vt., home of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. The owner of the 41-year-old nuclear plant last month shocked its 630 employees — about a third from Massachusetts — by announcing it is closing.
Activists opposed to nuclear energy have long opposed the region’s plants, raising safety concerns that peaked two years ago after the tsunami in Japan caused a series of meltdowns at reactors there. But the New England plants have been economic boons for the small towns where they were built — as long as they remain open.
The residents of Vernon now face mass unemployment and the loss of about half the town’s tax revenues. Compounding their challenges will be the difficulty of doing anything with the valuable property.
Like at other nuclear plants shuttered in the region, such as Connecticut Yankee in Haddam and Yankee Rowe in Northwestern Massachusetts, the radioactive waste must remain on the property until the federal government finds a suitable location to store the spent fuel. That could take decades as politicians have feuded for years about where to store the waste permanently and strict federal regulations require a security cordon around the property.
“We’re all in the same position: We want to go out of business,” said Eric Howes, a spokesman for Maine Yankee, which retains a small staff to maintain its 64 casks of radioactive waste, each of which weighs more than 300,000 pounds, emits temperatures of up to 114 degrees, and releases small amounts of radiation into the air. “The land could be reused for other purposes, but as long as the fuel is there, it can’t be used for anything.”
The plant in Rowe, Mass., which cost more than $600 million over 15 years to decommission, also left a path of woe for the town’s 280 residents when it closed in 1992. The plant had nearly as many employees as the town had residents and local companies suffered from the loss of business.
Wiscasset officials would relish the opportunity to redevelop the Maine Yankee property and bring in a new employer. The plant, which paid for 96 percent of the town’s budget until 1996, remains the largest payer of property taxes — providing about 10 percent of the town’s $10 million budget. But residents are still coping with their abrupt plummet in wealth and their lingering expectations of extensive services.
The town lacks money to repair leaky windows and roofs in school buildings. The high school has fewer than half the students it had two decades ago, and about 50 percent of them rely on subsidized lunches. Sewer and utility services are no longer free and residents reminisce about how they once indulged in amenities such as a ladder truck for their fire department, even though the town lacks buildings taller than three stories.
Using an average of data collected between 2006 and 2010, the US Census American Community Survey found that more than 33 percent of Wiscasset residents were living in poverty, more than double the percentage found in the 2000 US Census. Wiscasset ranked as the fourth-poorest community in Maine.
To the throngs of summer tourists who pass through on Route 1, the downtown seems prosperous. But on a recent afternoon at one of the many lobster shacks in town, Tony True recalled working a contracting job on a steam generator at the plant when the company announced it was closing. Everyone around him walked out.
“It became a ghost town,” said True, 51, who has lived in Wiscasset most of his life.
Like others in town, he remains angry that the 900-megawatt reactor closed after a quarter-century of generating electricity, a process that took nine years and cost $568 million. (Officials at the plant, which is owned by a consortium of utility companies in New England, blamed the difficult economics of running the plant, which had maintenance issues and required expensive work, a similar explanation provided by officials at Vermont Yankee.)
True’s property taxes, which used to run $180 annually, now exceed $4,000 a year. He laments the state of the schools and the animosity that arises every year over the town’s meager budget.
“I wish Maine Yankee never came here,” he said. “We went from having anything we wanted to having nothing, like going from being spoiled children to having no parents. The closing really put a curtain on Wiscasset.”
Sue Thompson, who has lived in the town all her life, has seen the sharp plunge in everything from road maintenance to sports championships at the high school.
Many of her friends left town for jobs elsewhere and she complains about the high cost of trash pickup, which used to be free, and the lack of public works staff to shovel sidewalks. But she’s one of the few residents who sees a benefit from the plant’s closing.
“Most of my family died of cancer, and I think the plant was the reason,” said Thompson, 55, a cashier at a fireworks shop.
Howes, the plant spokesman, said it operated safely. Most other residents interviewed in town said they rarely worried about the plant’s safety and have few concerns about the remaining radioactive waste.
But the plant faced serious allegations of safety violations and falsifying records around the time it was closed, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Agency investigators found Maine Yankee relied on inadequate computer analyses to demonstrate the adequacy of its emergency core cooling system; “willfully provided inaccurate information” to the NRC about its ability to vent steam during an accident; and provided falsified records of safety-related equipment.
“Many of these violations and underlying causes were longstanding and appeared to be caused by ineffective engineering analyses,” NRC officials wrote to Maine Yankee shortly after the plant closed.
They added that Maine Yankee “was a facility in which pressure to be a low-cost performer led to practices which over-relied on judgment, discouraged problem reporting, and accepted low standards of performance.”
Ashley Dowdy and her four young boys recently moved about a half-mile from where the casks are stored and can see the plant’s remaining administrative buildings from their house.
“We never worry about it,” said Dowdy, 25, who grew up in Wiscasset. She remembers using outdated textbooks and how the high school sports program went from upgrading equipment and uniforms every year to abandoning many of its teams.
High school principal Deb Taylor remembered when teachers routinely took students on field trips and the staff had generous health insurance. Now, field trips are rare and the school requires teachers to take their spouse’s health insurance.
“We’re an entirely different school and community than we were in the time of Maine Yankee,” Taylor said. “We have a student population with greater need and we have less ability to meet that need.”
The gulf between the past and present, as well as the nostalgia, has made the challenge greater.
“We face our issues still living under the perception that we are a wealthy place,” she said. “There’s a mismatch in who we feel we’re supposed to be and our current reality.”
At town hall, Selectwoman Judy Colby ticked off vestiges of Wiscasset’s bygone wealth: seven gleaming fire engines, two state-of-the-art ambulances, a prized community recreation center, three modern piers, sewer and water lines that reach the most rural parts of town, and cable television available in every home.
But they now all come with a hefty price.
“It’s now a real struggle for a lot of families to pay their taxes,” said Colby, whose annual tax bill spiked from $289 for 50 acres of land in 1996 to about $5,000 for 48 acres now. “People still want all the amenities, but they’re finding it very hard to pay for them.”