Residents protest, gain closure of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, USA, 2005-2013

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Timing
Time Period:  
2005
2013
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Vernon, Vermont
Goals: 
To shut down the Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant.
 

The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant has been running since 1972 in its home of Vernon, Vermont. Vermont Yankee was born at a time when environmentalists were cracking down on nuclear power. In between the 1970’s and 1990’s, numerous protests took place all across the country against the manufacturing and maintaining of nuclear power facilities. Activists were further ignited by the detrimental accident at Three Mile Island 1979, which marked the worst nuclear meltdown in US history.

New England residents against nuclear power took aim at Vermont Yankee as well. One group that was especially involved was the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, which was responsible for organizing large protests in the late 1970’s at the gates of the plant. Yet another was the Clamshell Alliance, which was also heavily involved in protests against the Seabrook power plant.

Despite demonstrations, Vermont Yankee remained online, and in 2002, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation sold the plant to Entergy Corporation. At this point, the already thirty-year-old reactor had begun to draw new concerns from local environmentalists who were unsure about the safety of the plant and whether it was susceptible to accidents. The plant’s history was speckled with malfunctions that were incredibly effective in fueling opposition to leaving it in operation.

Anti-nuclear activist groups boasting membership from all over Vermont protested the plant from multiple angles, even as it seemed their voices had gone unheard since before 1972. In 2005, a small group called the Shut it Down Now Affinity Group came together under the wing of Citizens Awareness Network (CAN) as one of six affinity groups working through CAN to close down Vermont Yankee. Consisting of a group of women ranging in ages from 40 to 91, they became one of the most active units protesting the plant from 2005 to 2011. Using colorful signs and advocating the benefits of alternative energy sources, the Shut it Down Affinity Group chained themselves to the entrance of the plant to prevent workers from entering, and had to be cut loose by state police officers. The women complied with arrest but were disappointed when they were refused a day in court, where they hoped to voice their concerns to people who could make a difference.

In January of 2006, about a year after the Shut it Down Affinity Group began protesting, Entergy applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for approval for a license renewal on their license set to expire in 2012. In addition, Entergy applied for approval to boost the plant’s power output by 20%. When Entergy announced their intentions, activists groups everywhere were infuriated and concerned. However, it seemed that the government was on their side when, in response to Entergy’s request, the Vermont State legislature passed Act 160 in March 2006 that gave the Vermont Senate the right to veto a relicensing by the NRC. Vermont became the first state where a democratically elected legislature had the power to decide the fate of a nuclear power plant.

Already, the NRC had approved the 20% power boost that March, and almost immediately the plant started experiencing problems. (These and other malfunctions at the plant are outlined by a document published by Greenpeace, another environmentalist group fighting to close Vermont Yankee). The NRC decided that a more thorough review of the aging plant’s current license was in order before approval of a new one.

Activists saw this an opportunity to recollect and refocus their efforts. The continued opposition to Vermont Yankee, a dozen organizations strong, had a new, targeted, and attainable goal: advocate for Vermont Yankee closing in 2012 as originally planned.

In April 2006 the Shut It Down Now Affinity Group held another demonstration, placing life-size dolls plastered with effigies against the nuclear power by its welcome sign. They then drove to the Vermont Yankee headquarters in Brattleboro where they tied a paper chain across the door to symbolize their desire for the plant to close in 2012. The women were later arrested, but again no charges were pressed.

Even as Entergy insisted the plant was safe and the NRC saw no reason to shut it down immediately, in 2007, one of the plant’s cooling towers collapsed, spewing its contents into the nearby river. The massive malfunction was further proof to many residents that the plant simply wasn’t safe and needed to be shut down as soon as possible.

Following the collapse in 2007, the Shut It Down Now Affinity Group hosted demonstrations at the plant in January, April and November of 2007. The following year, a Campaign called Safe and Green organized a march to ‘celebrate’ clean energy and promote a nuclear free Vermont. Formed by citizens from the Tristate area and sponsored by Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC) and Nuclear Free Vermont (NFV), the Safe and Green Campaign organized members of the community around shutting the plant down by 2012. Each group drew from a long list of problems with Vermont Yankee to further their cause, from its repeated and numerous malfunctions to its excessive age.

Maintenance and security issues with the plant continued in 2009 when, following inquiries by the Vermont Public Service Board, Entergy falsely declared that there were no underground pipes at Vermont Yankee. Less than a year later, in January 2010, it was discovered that there were three separate tritium leaks coming from underground pipes at the plant. Activists and legislatures alike shunned Entergy for their misleading statements, but no charges against the corporation were filed.

In response to Entergy’s “Leaks and Lies,” the Safe and Green campaign organized a march of about 200 people from Brattleboro to the Vermont Statehouse and delivered a petition signed by 1,600 residents asking that Vermont Yankee’s license not be renewed. They urged the legislators to use their power not to let Entergy run the reactor another 20 years.

In February, the moment many of the activists had been waiting for finally came: the Vermont State legislatures voted on whether or not to allow a renewal of Vermont Yankee’s license. In a vote many called ‘historic,’ the Vermont senate voted 26-4 against recommending that the Public Service Board approve the relicensing. Outside, a group of anti-nuclear activists held vigil until the vote was cast.

Although many had hoped that this would be the final nail in Vermont Yankee’s coffin, Entergy decided to challenge the motion, and filed a lawsuit against the state of Vermont in April, saying that the legislatures were impinging upon the NCR’s authority.

In addition, there were rumors that Entergy was looking to sell the plant in the midst of the mess, possibly in response to the election of Governor Peter Shumlin, who opposed the plant. Activists rekindled their efforts, using the recent studies showing tritium in drinking and river-water as fuel for more demonstrations.

In July 2010 the Safe and Green Campaign hosted a parade raising awareness about the possibility of radioactive fish in the area. In August and September the Shut It Down Affinity Group continued their protests at the gates of the plant, still not receiving a day in court despite multiple arrests. In November, Greenpeace, yet another group pushing to close Vermont Yankee, flew a hot air ship with the words ‘Shut Down Vermont Yankee’ over the plant.

In March 2011, 600 protesters rallied outside the plant after the meltdown of the Fukushima I nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan. Despite the continued pressure by activists and the vote of the senate, the NRC opted to renew Vermont Yankee’s license for another 20 years, scheduling the new license to expire in March 2032. After what was called a ‘detailed technical inspection’ that took almost six years, the NRC declared that there was no reason not to renew the plant’s license.

In March 2012, 1000 protesters marched from Brattleboro Park in Brattleboro, Vermont to Entergy's corporate headquarters 3.5 miles away. As the anti-plant protesters gathered, supporters of the plant gathered across the street with signs defending the plant's existence. As the anti-plant protesters departed, some marched on stilts and others carried signs reading "hell no, we won't glow." At the headquarters, 130 protesters were arrested by waiting police for unlawful trespass, after which they were processed and released. Governor Peter Shumlin expressed support for the protesters and frustration that the plant remained open.

Another, smaller march occurred in Brattleboro in March 2013.

Later, in August, the United States Court of Appeal upheld the lower circuit's decision that the Vermont legislature could not force the plant or any plant to close for safety reasons, as states' abilities to regulate nuclear safety are "pre-empted" by the Atomic energy act of 1946. Later than month, Entergy announced 30 layoffs at the plant, and then announced that the plant would close for financial reasons by the end of 2014.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Environmentalist movement of the 1970's and 80's. (1)

Sources: 
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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Elena Ruyter 25/09/2011; updated and edited by Michael Alex Hall, 3/27/14