ROWE, Mass. — The three security guards carrying semi-automatic weapons warned the two visitors they were trespassing on private property and admonished a photographer to put his camera away.
Somewhere behind the gate were the 16 concrete casks, weighing more than 100 tons apiece, holding dangerous radioactive spent fuel assemblies that once powered the Yankee Rowe Atomic Electricity Co.
It was the only visible sign that a nuclear plant once powered the local economy in this picturesque, sparsely populated outdoor recreational haven in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains.
The plant itself, hidden in the woods, closed in 1992 and its decommission was officially completed in 2007. All that’s left are the tightly guarded concrete casks, stuck there because federal authorities still haven’t figured out what to do with highly radioactive nuclear waste.
On Tuesday, owner Entergy Corp. announced that the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon will close in the fourth of quarter of 2014. It will become the fourth nuclear plant in New England to experience the decommissioning process, following Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee in Haddam Neck and Maine Yankee in Wiscasset.
Today, 21 years after Yankee Rowe closed, many in this tiny town say they barely give it a second thought. The shock waves and fallout that reverberated through the area have long since settled, although some area business owners quietly say they will never recover from the economic hit they took in the ensuing years.
Like Vermont Yankee, the announcement of Yankee Rowe’s closing after 31 years in operation came as a surprise. Like Vermont Yankee, Rowe’s owners, the Yankee Atomic Electric Co., said the decision to close was because it was no longer economically feasible to keep it open. And like Vermont Yankee, questions about safety, parts breaking down and contamination of the local area plagued the plant.
The decommissioning process cost Rowe’s owners $608 million, more than 16 times the $39 million it cost to build the plant in the early 1960s. According to Yankee Rowe, more than 21 miles of piping and tubing, 1,071 valves, 3,569 pipe hangers, 321 pumps and 33 miles of conduit and cable were removed.
Of the 16 concrete casks on site, 15 hold the 533 spent fuel assemblies and one stores parts of the reactor that are considered high-level radioactive. In comparison, Vermont Yankee has 900 spent fuel assemblies in dry storage and another 3,000 still in its pool.
Asked what residents in the Vernon area can expect, Rowe Selectmen Chairwoman Marilyn Wilson chuckled and said, “Big trucks. Expect to see a lot of big trucks.”
Like Rowe, similar but larger nuclear plants in Maine and Connecticut also closed due to economics later in the decade. They, too, were dismantled, their sites swept clean except for the concrete storage casks. Maine has 60 casks on site and Connecticut, 43.
But the big trucks that carried the main components of those plants to waiting railroad cars and permanent low-level radioactive waste dumps in South Carolina and Texas may not arrive in Vernon for some time to come.
Entergy has indicated it will put the plant in “safe-store,” leaving the site largely intact for up to 60 years to allow the radioactive material to become easier to handle.
Today, Rowe and its population of 283 make Vernon and its 2,200 residents look like a metropolis. Rowe doesn’t have any large neighbors, as a day of shopping or a night out for dinner means traveling east to Greenfield, Mass., or west to North Adams, both more than half-hour drives.
Rowe’s biggest business is the Bear Swamp Hydroelectric Power Station on the Deerfield River. The river surrounded by dozens of hiking trails is the area’s recreational center, with several small rafting and fishing enterprises based there.
“The fishing here is absolutely fantastic,” said Tom Harrison, who came here from Montana to run Harrison Anglers with his brother, Dan.
Harrison thinks nothing of thumbing a ride back upstream to retrieve gear with strangers on a scenic road that parallels the river. The former nuclear plant, he says, is all but invisible to him.
But one business owner just over the border in Vermont, a lifelong area resident, says the plant’s closing had a huge effect on the area. The co-owner didn’t want to be named, but said the local economy took a significant hit when the plant’s 220 employees eventually lost their jobs, and said it still affects her small, family business today.
In contrast, Vermont Yankee has about 630 employees, about three times more than Yankee Rowe’s workforce.
There are no restaurants, no stores of any kind, no traffic in Rowe. The closest general store is in Readsboro, Vt., normally a short drive away but now a long and winding 20-mile detour because the bridge connecting Rowe with equally small Monroe is closed. The reopening of the Readsboro Inn a few days a week brought smiles, because it’s the only place for miles around to get pizza.
“It’s just a quiet little town with exceptional beauty,” Rowe resident Bill Belval said.
The nuclear plant still helps keep property taxes down, Wilson said. Yankee Rowe’s owner says it costs about $8 million per year to store the spent fuel assemblies, and it was part of a winning lawsuit against the federal government for not providing a national waste-storage site when Yucca Mountain in Nevada didn’t pan out.
Yankee Rowe remains on the tax rolls and, along with the hydro plant, makes up well more than half of the town’s income from property taxes. Residents in 2013 paid $1,341 in property taxes based on a $100,000 house.
It also faces the typical small-town issues, and lately the rebuilding of the town’s elementary school has been front and center. Last August, a lightning strike caused the school to catch fire and it was destroyed. “We were so lucky, incredibly lucky, that it happened on a Saturday afternoon when it was empty,” Wilson said.
Residents recently voted to rebuild it at a special town meeting, even though there are only 47 students in town, kindergarten through 6th grade.
The downtown area consists of the Rowe Town hall, a library, church, highway/fire department building and historical society. Open only for two hours on Sunday afternoons, and by appointment, the historical society is touting its collection of Hoosac Tunnel photos and artifacts, although it also has information on Yankee Rowe.
Rowe is the eastern gateway of the 4.75-mile long railroad tunnel that cuts through the Hoosac Range and emerges in North Adams. It’s the stuff of lore. Unlike Yankee Rowe, where no lives were lost and no reports of ghosts emerge, more than 200 workers were killed building the tunnel over a period of about 25 years starting in 1848. Rumors have persisted ever since that it’s haunted.
Yankee Rowe was the first and smallest water-pressurized nuclear plant built in New England, and only the third built in the United States. It came online amid much enthusiasm as part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program in the 1950s. By the time it closed in 1992, nuclear energy was under siege by critics, and Yankee Rowe was the site of many protests.
A 1997 report out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, titled “The Closing of the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant: The Impact on a New England Community,” said its effects had far-reaching implications beyond employment.
The report said Yankee Rowe donated thousands of dollars to the communities, such as buying emergency vehicles that are shared by the small towns. Also, many of its workers were community leaders, from coaching Little League teams to judging science fairs.
Today, time has eroded those effects. Belval, 74, says he knows many former Yankee Rowe workers who remained in the area because they loved its rural nature. The plant itself has long since ceased being a daily topic.
“It’s a non-subject,” Wilson said of Yankee Rowe. “It brought a lot of jobs and was good for the region’s economy. Many people stayed and retired here. Now, it’s just not something that many people talk about.”