The View from Vermont

Understanding the Vermont Political Landscape

By Howard Shaffer,  P.E. (nuclear)

“All politics is local.”  —Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House

Vermont, small in size and population, rates one representative in the U.S. Congress. The state was not one of the original thirteen colonies, but joined later. Vermonters are proud of their place in history, their rural heritage, and their liberal tradition.

This tradition seems to be flavored with a dose of Farmer Independence, having elected a Republican governor for several terms, while having a Democratic legislature. The southeast and middle eastern areas of the state are part of a Connecticut River Valley liberal belt, which extends down into Massachusetts. The many colleges in the area influence attitudes. Based on my personal contacts over the years, many of the anti-nuclear activists are people who retired to the foothills and river valley from cities, for a 1960’s type of lifestyle

These activists are involved in crusades to change society, including redoing energy use and supply. They support conservation, efficiency, alternative energies. Yet a vocal minority oppose nuclear energy on philosophical grounds, despite nuclear science’s many contributions to sustainable development. As luck would have it, in the middle of this anti-nuclear activist belt, in the liberal state of Vermont, is the handiest of targets—the Vermont Yankee (VY) nuclear power plant.

Local plant opponents are organized and tied into national movements. For example, the executive director of Citizens Awareness Network , based just south of the ‘border’, stood on the Vermont State House steps at a rally in 2009.  The President pro tem of the Senate and Speaker of the House stood behind her. She said, “We will shut down Vermont Yankee, then all the nukes in the country, then all the nukes in the world.”

The New England Coalition Against Nuclear Pollution, now the New England Coalition, was formed to oppose and intervene against VY during its construction. The Coalition still is a VY intervenor and has intervened against other plants, too. There is an active Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), with full time staff working on many issues and a million dollar budget. Its Clean Energy Program director works tirelessly against Vermont Yankee.

These organizations have kept the Vermont Yankee issue on the political agenda. They keep the op-eds, letters to the editor, letters to legislators, and talk shows full of anti VY opinions. In addition, the New England Coalition continually thinks of new issues on which to base NRC petitions. Negative stories about VY are always news.

In 1972, Vermont Yankee was completed and owned by a company with a majority ownership by the two largest electric utilities in Vermont.

In 2002, Vermont Yankee was sold to Entergy Corp. VY has a power uprate and dry cask storage. All these actions were vigorously opposed.

VY applied for relicensing in 2006. In addition to a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license, VY needs an extension of its Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the State of Vermont’s Public Service Board (PSB). This was agreed to during the sale to Entergy.

The opponents have pulled out all the stops in an effort to block relicensing and force the plant to shut down at the end of its license in 2012. Their effort has drawn national and international attention and support. Greenpeace opened an office in Burlington, home of the University of Vermont. VPIRG is using very aggressive tactics. Among other things, VPIRG has paid student summer “Internships.” Students ride their bikes throughout the state, distributing petitions and literature.

A major legislative tactic was enacted to block the plant. In general, a CPG decision is made by the PSB. The new law requires the legislature to pass a resolution allowing the PSB to release its findings.

This past February, the Senate voted down a resolution allowing the release of findings.  The legislature, however, can always revote, and there will be a new legislature in January after this November’s election. The bad news is that most of the same members are expected to return. The leading candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, the President pro tem of the Senate, is a virulent opponent of VY.

Lawyers at the Vermont Law School, who consult for the legislature, believe the CPG  issue will be settled in court.

The plant has had its share of problems, and there have been a few mistakes. It has, however, a green safety finding from the NRC and completed 530+ days of continuous operation–“breaker to breaker” prior to the spring refueling outage.

Howard Shaffer

Howard Shaffer

Howard Shaffer is a former nuclear submarine Engineer Officer. He has served as Principal Engineer at Ebasco, as Startup Engineer at Vermont Yankee, Ludington Pumped Storage, and Chin Shan 1&2. Shaffer worked as Principal Engineer at Yankee Atomic Electric Company, Nuclear Services Division, and as Systems Engineer and Lead Systems Engineer in support of Vermont Yankee, Seabrook, Yankee, Maine Yankee and Millstone 1. He was Senior Systems Engineer at Dresden 2&3.

Shaffer has been an ANS member for 34 years.  He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards Committees, ANS Commitees, National meeting staffs, and his Local Section; and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow. He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults as Nuclear Public Outreach. He is Coordinator for the Vermot Pilot Project.  Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT.

4 responses to “The View from Vermont

  1. Howard – in general, people who have wide ranging, liberal educations, are often endowed with questioning attitudes and a desire for lifelong learning. I actually LIKE being around those kinds of people and enjoy living in places where there is a good higher education system.

    It has been my observation that at least some of the opposition to nuclear energy is from well funded, well organized groups whose funding can be eventually traced to suppliers of competitive energy sources. Since nuclear is reliable and has low marginal costs of operation, especially when the plant is already bought and paid for, it is a formidable market competitor that is difficult to push out through fair competition. That natural advantage does not slow some competitors – if they cannot win fairly, they have no issue with stooping to a more effective level of competition. I call it the Tonya Harding school of competition where hiring a knee capper is always an option.

    My advice is, don’t blame the liberals – work to get them to recognize the environmental advantages of nuclear energy and to see that they may be inadvertently advancing the interests of some rather large and nasty competitors when they fight against continued operation of Vermont Yankee.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

    • Rod,
      Thanks for the comment. I find it hard to go into detail in a survey, in a short blog. I’ll elaborate in the future.

      It is the extreme liberals who emotionally embrace the causes, and don’t want facts, that are the opponents. The rest of the liberals won’t in general disavow them, athough it is beginning to happen.

      It is difficult for reasonable people to disagree with the extremists when Vermont Yankee doesn’t believe in what Senator Simpson says, ” A charge unanswered is a charge believed.” They don’t answer the vast majority of charges.

  2. Now, I live in the Valley. It isn’t the liberalism that makes the Valley hostile to nuclear power. Liberalism is a fine philosophy – and many of nuclear technology’s greats were broadly liberal people. The problem here in the Valley is that their liberalism has grown untempered by reality, unchallenged, unrealistic, reflexive, and, in that form, fundamentally weak.

    Weak, not in the support that their liberalism commands – it commands uniform support – but weak, as in, “I don’t have to think, I already have all the answers”. As in, “My beliefs are beyond question.”

    Many have bumper stickers on their Priuses saying “Question Everything”, but they have forgotten that questioning everything means questioning the questions, and questioning their own precious beliefs and assumptions. They are an orthodox bunch – orthodoxy leads to collective delusions – and, as another bumper sticker around here says, “minds are like parachutes, they only function when they’re open”.

    There are allies here for nuclear power. Scientists, engineers, tradesmen/women, your average working stiff, people who are mostly liberal, but who haven’t lost their ability to question the questions…but it’s tough going. When you’re up against true believers with an unlimited budget and a tendency towards shrill rhetoric, personal hostility, collective delusions, witch trials based on spectral evidence, and magical thinking, well, things might seem a bit hopeless at times. But it isn’t. Keep on fighting the good fight.

    Liberalism isn’t the problem here. Close-mindedness is.

  3. Thank you. I agree.

    It is dissicult when the plant doesn’t respond to charges.

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