Business & Economy

March 21 looms large in Vermont Yankee debate

Editor’s note: A longer version of this story by Jeff Potter was originally published in The Commons issue #142 (Wednesday, March 7, 2012).

The date “March 21, 2012” rings with an emotional resonance in Windham County to people on both sides of the issue of whether Vermont Yankee should continue operating. As the last day of the plant’s first 40 years of operation looms closer, even the most diehard antinuclear activists have conceded the likelihood that the plant will remain open despite a cornucopia of issues that remain under the state’s jurisdiction.

That doesn’t mean that those opposing the plant have accepted the circumstances. In the rainy gloom on the morning of March 3, a few students in their teens and early 20s gather on the slushy sidewalk next to the town common in Greenfield, Mass., as they prepare to walk single-file the 17 miles to the gates of the nuclear power plant in Vernon, an action they call “Powershift.”

Other, older, people arrive, stalwarts of dozens of such events, some carrying well-worn signs. A college-aged assistant holds a colorful umbrella, shielding documentary filmmaker Robbie Leppzer from falling clumps of slush from the trees overhead as he pans the gathering crowd.

One man with long gray hair walks up to the crew, a grade-school girl in tow. “Don’t take my picture, and don’t take her picture,” he demands gruffly. “I’m not into that. I don’t want to be famous.”

The camera-shy man says he was stopped in the 1970s. “The officer said that I have no record, but my FBI file is this thick,” he says, his thumb and index finger measuring a gap of a full inch or two of 1960s activism.

The walk gets off to a bit of a slow start as the main coterie of Greenfield Community College students who are organizing the walk have decided to walk from the college itself. And then the group arrives. Rose Whitcomb-Detmold and Ginevra Fitzgerald Bucklin-Lane hop into the snow on the common, surveying the crowd, which by this time numbers almost 40 people.

Whitcomb-Detmold, speaking through an uncooperative megaphone, speaks confidently of the anti-nuclear cause needing to be “taken up by a younger generation.”

Wearing of the green?

In the days since U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha’s ruling in the Entergy v. Vermont case, Vermont Yankee’s allies have certainly had reason to feel less dispirited. Two high-profile plant proponents are planning a St. Patrick’s Day rally — for “green power,” they say — to show support for the plant and its employees.

“The main reason for our rally is the usual: To show workers and the press that many people support the plant,” says Meredith Angwin, director of the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute and a pro-Vermont Yankee blogger.

Angwin is co-organizing the rally with Howard Shaffer, coordinator of the Vermont Pilot Project of the American Nuclear Society.

“Plant opponents are always having rallies and vigils at the plant,” Shaffer wrote in a press release for the rally, which runs from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the gates of the plant on Saturday, March 17. “We want to show the people who work at the plant that many people support the plant and support their efforts.”

Since “Vermont surveys show opinion about the plant to be fairly evenly divided,” she says, it’s time for the pro-nuclear side to make a visible statement of its own.

And that’s not to imply that the effort is designed to buoy spirits. “Actually, my own impression is that the people at Vermont Yankee are energized by the court ruling,” says Angwin.

Laying it on the line

Bob Bady walks through a plumbing supply store, mixing activism with his construction work as he discusses the “Occupy Entergy Headquarters” plans that are unfolding for Thursday, March 22.

After a rally at 11 a.m., at the Brattleboro Common, protesters will make the 3.5-mile walk up Putney Road to Entergy’s corporate headquarters on Old Ferry Road, says Bady, one of the “core group members” of the Safe and Green Campaign, a local advocacy group. He also serves on the coordinating committee of the SAGE Alliance, a larger confederation of 30 to 40 groups that all want the plant to close.

“The intention is to deliver a message to the corporation with a rally on their land,” Bady says.
The message might result in arrests, though Bady says that police have indicated that they “don’t want arrests, and they don’t want a lot of arrests.” Participants risking arrest must be trained in nonviolence and be affiliated with an affinity group.

Bady says that planning for such acts of civil disobedience has been under way since early last summer. “Even before the ruling, we were talking and planning this sort of response,” he says.

“Our expectation is that Entergy will bring in legal machinations to keep operating, and that we will have reason to bring some other force into play here,” Bady says, calling Entergy’s stewardship of Vermont Yankee “a really serious, dangerous scenario” that’s “just not acceptable.”

Bady points to the parallels between Vermont Yankee and the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan, which featured the same containment design as the VY facility.

“It’s the same reactor, the same age, the same lack of oversight, and the same corporate arrogance,” he says.

On Sunday, March 11, buses dropped people at the Vermont Yankee gates, and they walked back to Brattleboro with their “evacuation gear” to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tidal wave that created catastrophic conditions at Fukushima. At a forum later, at 5 p.m., nuclear energy consultants Arnold and Maggie Gunderson presented what organizers describe as an “analysis and update on conditions” at Fukushima.

Noting that the state’s appeal might well take four to five years to grind through the federal court system to the U.S. Supreme Court — a court whose current composition is not exactly unsympathetic to corporate interests — Bady says he finds it “personally irresponsible” to sit back and wait for the process to unfold on its own.

“It’s a huge environmental issue, a huge corporate subversion-of-democracy thing,” Bady says. “This is our own corporate saboteur in our own backyard.”

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  • Alex Barnham

    I am impressed by the people of Vermont…the police do not want confrontations and want peaceful messages…the patriots who are exercising their freedoms want to give a message devoid of violence…the US citizens who are watching all this are expecting integrity and upright behavior. There is hope.

    Jeff Potter, your message is exemplary. Thank you.