Vermont antinuke activists have scored a victory that New Yorkers, concerned about the leaky Indian Point nuke plant 40 miles north of the city, might learn from.
On August 27, Entergy Corporation of Louisiana announced that it was closing the Vermont Yankee (V.Y.) nuclear power reactor. The plant will stop producing electricity in 2014—a full 18 years before its operating license expires.
Entergy claims its decision was “not political” and based solely on economics: deflated energy prices due to plentiful natural gas, “flaws” in the New England electricity market; and the high cost structures of a single unit plant––especially due to the impact of cumulative regulations.
In fact, a powerful case can be made that the crucial factor was indeed political. For decades, citizen, anti-nuclear, environmental, and public interest organizations, especially those that formed the Safe Power Vermont coalition in 2006, have engaged in a relentless grassroots advocacy campaign against the reactor. (Full disclosure, I have been an active member of that group.) This campaign created a political context that ultimately caused Entergy to shut down Vermont Yankee—but not others in its self-described “fleet” of aging nuclear reactors (including Indian Point in New York and Pilgrim in Massachusetts), most of which are faced with similar if not identical economic challenges.
Here is how it happened.
Activism against Vermont Yankee is as old as the plant itself, dating back to struggles to block approval and construction of the reactor, which began operations in 1972 with a 40-year license from the federal government. The movement was reinvigorated in 2001 when it tried to block the reactor’s sale to the Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation. That effort failed, but activist pressure helped forced Entergy to abide by the review and regulations of the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) in addition to those of the federal, industry-dominated Nuclear Regulatory Commission (N.R.C.).
The movement then focused on regulation of the company, although efforts to block Entergy’s N.R.C. application for a “power uprate” (meaning an increase in power generation and profits) and to force Entergy to adopt the safest approaches to on-site waste storage, were both unsuccessful. After those frustrated efforts, a handful of activists and two members of the Vermont legislature from towns in the reactor’s evacuation zone began to rethink strategy. Our focus shifted to “nuclear free Vermont by 2012.”
In order to shift power over the reactor’s future into the hands of Vermont legislators and the citizens who elect them, a bill was introduced which would require both houses of the State legislature to vote in favor of continued operation before the Vermont P.S.B. could issue a new “certificate of public good” ruling for the reactor to operate after 2012.
This bill promised to put in place real democratic accountability for Vermont Yankee. It’s one thing for a large corporation from Louisiana to control, or influence, the five votes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Its another thing entirely for it to control tens of thousands of independent voters, scattered across hundreds of towns.
We used the pending elections to leverage support from the leader of the Vermont state senate and we connected with organizations that brought state-wide memberships and extensive experience with the legislature. After months of organizing and lobbying, the bill passed and Act 160 became the first law in the country giving a state control over a nuclear power plant.
Having won a major victory, our organizations formed the Safe Power Vermont coalition and began a multi-year campaign to accomplish a much more difficult task: we had to convince either the Vermont House or Senate to vote against Vermont Yankee’s continued operation.
This campaign involved passage of additional laws, including a bill that increased public oversight (with costs charged to Entergy). At the grassroots level, coalition members organized in the districts of legislators considered to be swing votes. Resolutions calling for the closure of Vermont Yankee passed by overwhelming margins in dozens of town meetings. Thanks to the movement’s drumbeat, Entergy faced a barrage of bad publicity about problems at the reactor—from a massive collapse of a water cooling tower to a leaks in a pipe or cracks in the steam dryers. It was increasingly seen as an out-of-state, out-of-touch, untrustworthy, and profit-hungry corporation.
Entergy was forced to testify to the state legislature about whether or not radioactive tritium could be leaking from underground pipes as it has at many other reactors. Entergy initially said no such underground pipes existed. Then it turned out they did exist. And in early 2010, tritium was discovered in test wells.
Entergy was caught in a very public, very embarrassing lie. A few months later, the Senate voted 26 - 4 not to allow continued operation of Vermont Yankee after 2012.
However, soon thereafter—around the same time the nuclear disaster was unfolding in the Fukushima reactors, which are near clones of Vermont Yankee—the N.R.C. granted Vermont Yankee a 20-year license renewal.
Entergy then sued Vermont on the claim that the state legislature had preempted federal law that precludes any entity other than the NRC from making decisions based on nuclear safety. After spending over $4.5 million on lawyers—ten times what Vermont could afford—Entergy won the right to operate beyond 2012.
But the activists refused to give up. The same court judgment affirmed that Entergy still needed the Vermont P.S.B.’s stamp of approval, the “certificate of public good,” to operate beyond 2012. An appeal reaffirmed this requirement and overturned the corporation’s demand that Vermont pay for its legal expenses. Thus, Entergy was confronted with far more than its stated economic problems. There was now a significant possibility that the Vermont’s P.S.B., which has re-opened the case and received significant testimony from advocates and state agency representatives that characterize Entergy as untrustworthy, might soon rule against the company. Regardless of the outcome of the P.S.B. trial, continued efforts by the activists and legislature would surely incur additional legal expenses and require more executive time, public relations funding, and other resources to defend V.Y.
The activists had succeeded in creating policies, public opinion, and a political environment in Vermont that is unlike those that surround Entergy’s other reactors (despite efforts of strong networks of smart, committed activists focused on Indian Point and some of the others).
It was in this political environment that Entergy decided to close Vermont Yankee—but not any of its other economically-challenged reactors. The news of its closing is a welcome reminder that even up against an enormously rich and influential industry, people power—if strategic, persistent, and willing to use every form of leverage available—can prevail.
JEFF UNSICKER is a professor at the SIT Graduate Institute (Brattleboro, VT) where he teaches courses on policy advocacy. His recent book, Confronting Power: The Practice of Policy Advocacy (Kumarian Press, 2012), includes two case studies of the efforts to close Vermont Yankee.