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 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.