The show goes on at Vermont Yankee, and not just the power plant.
More than 1,000 people turned up in Brattleboro to march the 3.5 miles from the town common to Entergy’s offices. Dozens trespassed on the company’s property and were arrested.
Thursday was a monumental day for residents of the tri-state area near the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.
Forty years after the plant opened, its license expired Wednesday, but the plant continued to operate pursuant to a federal court order.
Longtime opponents of nuclear power, like Scott Nielsen from Quaker City, N.H., converged on Brattleboro’s town green to create a hoopla of music, colors and civil disobedience.
Nielsen, 82, donned a sign reading “THE 1% OWN ENTERGY CONGRESS FEDERAL COURTS NRC.” Next to him, Jenny Wright wore a sign reading “BUT THEY DON’T OWN US FIGHT LIKE HELL.”
Police later arrested the two when they entered Entergy’s property without permission.
“I’m opposed to Vermont Yankee,” Nielsen said. “I think it’s dangerous.”
He said he is concerned with the amount of deadly radiation produced by Chernobyl and Fukushima.
“I don’t want it to happen here,” he said.
Nielsen said he was a strong supporter of nuclear power until the 1970s, when, he said, he learned of the dangers it poses.
He lives within the 50-mile radius of the plant but, Nielsen said, “I’m 82. I’m concerned for my grandchildren.”
A single-file line stretched for what looked like a mile and a band led the march to Entergy’s offices, where law enforcement awaited.
Signs with messages like “time’s up” and “Entergy corporate greed” spotted the ant-like line along the road. The spectacle made its way through town before converging on the corporate offices where protesters chanted “shut it down” and some crossed the line to awaiting police.
The plant’s continued operation sets a precedent nationwide in the nuclear as well as in the legal realm.
Earlier this year, federal Judge J. Garvan Murtha issued a ruling finding two Vermont laws requiring legislative approval for the plant to continue operating were unconstitutional as pre-empted by federal law.
The plant hasn’t received a new license to replace the one that expired this Wednesday. The Vermont Public Service Board has yet to issue an order on the new license and no one has ordered the plant to cease operating in the interim.
Meanwhile the state and Entergy have appealed Judge Murtha’s decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Legal experts say the case could have national ramifications.
The plant’s continued operation on an expired license is a first of its kind also, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the organization, said this is the first time a plant has expired and it has continued to operate “on grace.”
Lochbaum said in the 1980s the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would issue provisional licenses that allowed plants to operate at partial capacity. Plants have ramped up to full capacity on these types of licenses a handful of times, but none has kept operating after its license expiration date without a new permit in hand.
Entergy does have a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but its state license is expired. The company argues state law allows it to operate while the Public Service Board proceeding to approve a new license goes on.
For some Vermonters, like Court Dorsey of the SAGE Alliance, say the legal struggle has gone nowhere, and it is time for Vermonters to take to the streets.
“The legal system is demonstrating its unwillingness or inability to stop the continued operation of this plant,” Dorsey said.
The alliance led trainings for people to learn to engage in civil disobedience this week.
“There are people who feel very strongly that Entergy is a rogue corporation, and they need to exercise their citizen power to stand in the way of the continued operation of this plant,” he said. “They’re doing that by going to the headquarters and placing themselves on that property and telling Entergy that they need to leave and that their time is up.”
For some, like Lisa Winter of Wendell, Mass., the protest was a homecoming of sorts.
Winter was arrested more than 30 years ago at the plant in Vernon in protest.
She opted out of getting arrested this time given the family responsibilities that she’s acquired in the past 30 years, she said. But her fierce opposition to the plant remains.
“The technology exists to not have to use it anymore,” she said of nuclear power. “Given how it is so dangerous. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Winter said she was disappointed that Gov. Peter Shumlin did not come to the protests.
The governor did issue a statement.
“I am very supportive of the peaceful protesters gathered today in Brattleboro to express their – and my – frustration that this aging plant remains open after its agreed-upon license has expired,” it read. “We’re doing all we can so that Vermont can move on from this old plant and move towards an energy future that sends Entergy Louisiana back to Louisiana.”
One member of the Legislature, Sen. Phillip Baruth of Burlington, did show up — and got arrested.
Baruth said he felt it was the right thing to do.
“I swore an oath to my constituents and to the state to protect the safety of Vermont,” he said. “The federal government is of the opinion that I should sit down and be quiet, and I’m not going to do that.”
As of Thursday afternoon, police were taking the 163 arrestees to jail in Brattleboro.
Capt. Ray Keefe, incident commander for the plant for the Vermont State Police, said Brattleboro Police handled the majority of the arrests.
“The Brattleboro Police did a great job, and the protesters handled themselves very well,” Keefe said.
While the protesters made noise and created a spectacle, subtle signs lined many lawns in Brattleboro supporting the plant, which provides 650 jobs directly and around 1,000 including contractors.
And a few groups held signs saying “VY 4 VT” as the parade marched by.
Gwen Shaclumis, an attorney from Brattleboro, stood across the street from the common while the protest ramped up.
Shaclumis said opponents of the plant neglect the fact that it is a crucial part of the regional economy.
“Vermont Yankee’s always been good to Windham County,” she said. “Entergy is very generous with donations to nonprofits. They donate hundreds of thousands of dollars. When they go, who’s going to replace that? No one talks about it.”
Shaclumis said, while the opponents of the plant’s operation make a lot of noise, she thinks most people support it because it’s a big income producer. As for protesters comparing the plant the the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan that had a meltdown, “there’s no tsunami danger here,” she said.
Nancy Doyle, Shaclumis’ legal assistant, said she supports keeping the plant open as well.
Doyle grew up 45 minutes south of Brattleboro in Rowe, Mass.
When the Yankee Rowe nuclear plant shuttered in the 1990s, many of the businesses in town left with it, she said.
“The last big business in the town where I lived was a nuclear power plant, and it closed,” she said. “People packed up and left.”
Doyle said she is concerned the same thing would happen to the region surrounding Vermont Yankee.
The Vermont Energy Partnership, a coalition that supports keeping the plant operating, issued a statement expressing economic concerns over the plant’s closure.
A statement by Brad Ferland, president of the partnership, said, “Last week, business and community leaders in Windham County revealed the results of a study on the effects of shutting down the Vermont Yankee power plant in Vernon, the state’s largest baseload manufacturer of electricity. The findings validated what many in Southern Vermont already feared: Vermont Yankee’s closure would likely result in the loss of more than 1,000 jobs, a 15% decrease in residential property values, and a massive hit to the community’s safety net.”
A spokesman for Vermont Yankee declined to comment on the protests Thursday.
Just what becomes of the plant, for now, is up to the Public Service Board and the federal courts, neither of which has stated when they will rule on the pending proceedings.