Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a historian and writer who lives in Middlesex.
Economic realities are doing what years of protests and legislative action could not; they are forcing the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. But another nuclear facility proposed for the shores of Lake Champlain was forced out by concerned citizens 44 years ago.
Most Vermonters are seemingly unaware that the state was supposed to have a second nuclear power plant. Or at least that was the plan of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Co. officials. This second plant would have been larger than the Vernon facility — two to four times larger, depending on which plan was used — and would have been situated on the shores of Lake Champlain.
When construction crews broke ground at the Vernon nuclear site on Dec. 11, 1967, plans were already under way for that second reactor, though Vermonters didn’t yet know it. Two months earlier, officials with the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Co. had signed an option to purchase the Charlotte farm of Dick and Mary Thurber as a possible site.
Word of the proposed nuclear plant escaped a few months later, though it is unclear exactly how. One version of the story is that Central Vermont Public Service Corp., Vermont Yankee’s major shareholder, leaked the news to gauge public reaction. Or perhaps rumors began circulating after someone noticed Vermont Yankee’s option in the town records. Another version has it that Dick Thurber himself accidentally let it slip at town meeting in 1968.
However the news emerged, it forced Vermonters to grapple with the issue. No one seems to have conducted a statewide poll, but a poll of Charlotte residents found 60 percent opposed to the plant and 22 percent in favor. Those supporting the plant believed it would spur local development and lower property taxes.
Indeed, it was rising property taxes that had sparked the Thurbers’ interest in selling, according to Nancy Wood, who was then their daughter-in-law. Though the Thurbers were farming the land, state tax policy called for the property to be taxed based on its development potential, which was considerable. This was in the days before the state Current Use program offered tax relief for people working their land. As a result, the Thurbers faced a steep tax bill.
The idea of selling the land to CVPS came from one of the Thurbers’ sons-in-law, who was working for the company and training in nuclear science, says Wood. The time seemed right. The nuclear industry was booming. It planned to build numerous plants to meet America’s growing energy demands. Between 1970 and 1975, it would break ground on 45 nuclear plants. Only stiff local opposition kept Charlotte from becoming the 46th.
Word of the purchase option worried neighbors, who implored the Thurbers, in person and in letters, not to sell. “They were under a considerable amount of pressure,” says Wood from her home in Charlotte.
If the Thurbers were in an uncomfortable position, so was Wood, whose father was a leading opponent of the project. “I pretty much kept my head down and kept out of it,” says Wood, who was in her mid-20s at the time.
Her father, Lyman Wood, was secretary-treasurer of the Lake Champlain Committee, a nonprofit citizens organization that fought the nuclear plant. The organization was only four years old when CVPS signed the purchase option. Wood, who as an advertising executive had worked on the state’s “Vermont, the Beckoning Country” tourism campaign, helped craft the Lake Champlain Committee’s response to the proposed plant.
The result was a full-page newspaper advertisement outlining the risks that nuclear plants pose. The ad appeared on Oct. 22, 1968, in the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Press-Republican and the Burlington Free Press. The ad’s large headline read: “Lake Champlain Committee Will Oppose Construction of Nuclear Power Plants Anywhere on the Lake.” Below, the committee spelled out its arguments.
Among its concerns was that a nuclear plant would draw cold water from the lake to cool the reactor and discharge warm water into the lake. Higher water temperatures would kill many forms of aquatic life, lower fish populations and spur algae growth, the ad said.
The plant might also release radionuclides like tritium into the lake, which could rise to dangerous levels over time and enter the food chain. Farther down the list was the risk of a serious nuclear accident, which might have seemed purely hypothetical, since Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Japanese nuclear power plant crisises were still years in the future.
The committee expressed concern that some dangers were unknown, as no reactors of that size, 1 million kilowatts, were yet operating. That was nearly twice the capacity of the plant being built in Vernon. (It later emerged that CVPS was actually considering making the Charlotte plant a 2 million kilowatt facility.)
A nuclear power plant would mar the landscape, the committee charged. The facility might be composed of a massive reactor building dwarfed by cooling towers and a brightly painted 400-foot smoke stack. The plant would have to be lit at night to make it visible to aircraft.
Plant supporters fight back
CVPS President L. Douglas Meredith tried to allay concerns by saying all this talk was premature. “We are making some water studies,” Meredith said, “and we plan some meetings with the state Water Resources and Fish and Game Departments. But at this point we have no plans for a plant. We have no definite information and we haven’t got a line on a piece of paper.”
Two months later, CVPS purchased 140 acres from the Thurbers. The couple retained a section of the farm. “I don’t think they had any intentions of going anywhere,” says Wood. “They were among the folks who believed that nuclear power was a safe and reliable option.”
U.S. Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., attacked plant opponents, asking whether most of the opposition wasn’t just from oil companies and railroads, which carried fuel to coal-burning plants. Aiken noted that the general counsel to the Lake Champlain Committee, Peter Paine Jr., had done work for the Delaware & Hudson Railroad.
Paine, who still lives in the lakeside community of Willsboro, N.Y., laughs at the idea that he profited from his opposition to the plant. The committee had no paid staff at the time. His interest was personal, not professional, he says. Paine volunteered to draft the committee’s position on the issue and went on to serve as the committee’s general counsel for roughly 45 years.
“A terrible mistake”
Paine believes the plant’s fate was sealed after Gov. Deane Davis’ administration persuaded members of the Atomic Energy Commission to come to Vermont to answer questions about the proposed plant in September 1969. “It was the first time the AEC had done such a thing,” Paine says. “The concept of having a public hearing was completely alien to them.”
And it showed.
Vermonters packed the Patrick Gymnasium at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “This wasn’t nuclear disarmament types with flags and such. It really wasn’t,” says Paine. “It was just ordinary citizens with scientific concerns and quite a bit of scientific evidence to back it up.”
The Atomic Energy Commission had grown out of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapon. One of the commission’s roles was to promote peaceful, civilian uses for nuclear technology. Working for an offshoot of the military, Paine says, AEC officials were not used to being questioned.
At the gathering, Paine says, “The AEC made a terrible mistake and said, essentially, father knows best. In Vermont, with its tradition of town meetings and people saying what they think, it went down like a lead balloon. It was a catastrophe from the perspective of the power company and as a result, a ways down the line, they simply withdrew the proposal.”
Power companies would look for other places to site a second Vermont nuclear power plant — Orwell, Shoreham and North Troy were all considered — but Vernon was the only project that came to fruition.
Paine says that after the Lake Champlain Committee and others had defeated the Charlotte proposal, Meredith, the CVPS president, wouldn’t speak to him. Years later, though, they ran into each other in Burlington. This was at a time when power companies were running into massive cost overruns in building nuclear plants. “He said to me, ‘You saved my company,’” Paine recalls. “He said it sort of grudgingly.” Perhaps market realities might have ensnared this second Vermont nuclear plant too.
CVPS sold the site in 1978. The new owners subdivided the property into 10-acre lots. Now more than a dozen homes dot the late Thurbers’ land, Wood says. In 2009, the new owners burned down the former Thurber home, which had been built in the 1930s, to make way for a new house. “It was sort of the end of a chapter,” Wood says.
The visible changes to the land, however, seem relatively minor, Wood says: “Take a picture now and it almost looks the same.”