Nuclear power in Vermont and Ontario: the locals fight back, intelligently

Meredith Angwin, who publishes the excellent blog Yes Vermont Yankee, is currently running a series of very interesting articles, all written by Vermonters who care deeply about whether the state’s only nuclear plant, Vermont Yankee, continues to generate electricity. The writers represent a diverse range of views and backgrounds, but are all in favour of keeping the plant running. When you read the articles, you will immediately note the intelligence and quiet passion with which the writers present their views. To me, this is no surprise. Meredith embodies the western critical intellectual tradition at its best. She is extremely well informed, and writes with confidence, conviction, and humility. When she is unsure of something, she says it up front. Her judgement, honed by iterative examination and reexamination of fact and context, is nuanced and formidable. People like her naturally bring out the best in others. I know: I had the pleasure of travelling through France with her and other nuclear advocates in 2010.

Flamanville new-build project, Normandy, France, June 2010. From left to right: me (standing apart from the group because I’m the only Canadian and the rest are American), Rod Adams (publisher of Atomic Insights), Jack Gamble (Nuclear Fissionary), Meredith Angwin (Yes Vermont Yankee), Gwyneth Cravens (author of Power to Save the World), and Jarret Adams of Areva.

Meredith has been fighting a relentless and resourceful campaign to keep Yankee open. In this, she reminds me a bit of the formerly obscure but now famous baseball outsiders who revolutionized thinking about the sport and who were immortalized in Michael Lewis’s brilliant book Moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game. Like major league baseball, nuclear advocacy in Vermont is definitely an unfair game: Yankee opponents are wired to the mainstream media and were successful years ago in defining the rhetorical frame in which the nuclear plant’s existence is debated in the public sphere. But like the Moneyballers, Meredith’s intelligence will win in the end. Like I said, she is relentless.

The articles currently showing on Yes Vermont Yankee are in advance of an interactive public hearing to be held by the Vermont Public Service Board, which regulates in-state utilities including electricity, on November 19. The articles follow a public meeting on November 7, in which, Meredith reports, plant supporters actually outnumbered plant opponents. That does not happen often. How did she do it? Have a read and find out.

For those who have observed the similar fight in Toronto over the GE-Hitachi CANDU fuel-pellet plant at Lansdown and Dupont, the Vermont Yankee fight might provide examples on how to use intelligence and reason—faculties available to all humans—to overcome medieval superstition. I am happy to note that at least one writer, a Toronto blogger named Randy McDonald who publishes A bit more detail, has reviewed, in person, the GEH opponents’ case, and has found it unconvincing.

I don’t know Randy McDonald and before today had never read his blog. A quick tour through it indicates that his interests are wide and various, that he writes well, and that he approaches his subjects with discernment, vigour, and agility. Here’s what he says about the campaign to close the GEH uranium fuel pellet plant at Lansdowne and Dupont:

Not only am I fine with the safety procedures at the plant, I’d suggest that making the plant move will only contribute to the deindustrialization of downtown Toronto and the consequent displacement of well-paying jobs from the downtown core. This is not a process that should be encouraged in any urban setting, least not one like Toronto that has fared relatively well compared to many of its North American peers.

It appears this guy has simply evaluated the facts of the matter, and drawn his own conclusion. What a refreshing contrast to the anti-nuclear side, whose willingness to trot out the same old uninformed nonsense time after time sometimes makes me wonder how we humans ever emerged from the Dark Ages.

To see intelligent people north and south of the 49th parallel weighing in on an issue of paramount importance to the world is, for me, extremely encouraging.

[AFTERWORD: I should note that Moneyball, while very interesting and a great read, was decidedly Oakland Athletics-centric and focused on only one school of “new” thought in baseball. In the year it was published, 2003, another major league team had won something like 11 consecutive division championships. That amazing winning streak extended to 2005. The team was the Atlanta Braves. While the Athletics are celebrated because of Moneyball, the Braves are a far more spectacular success story.]

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Cheryl Twarog
10 years ago

The employees of Vermont Yankee and their families are extremely grateful to Meredith for her tireless advocacy. She brings a great deal of rationality and knowledge to the debate over the future of VY. I truly believe that it is because of her efforts that people who might otherwise have turned a blind eye to our situation, have instead realized the great value VY adds to the region and have become knowledgeable supporters. Thanks, Meredith!

10 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Twarog

Cheryl: you do a great deal, yourself! Don’t be shy about it! The pro-VY pins you designed and had made, the guest posts on my blog, the letters to the editor. All your support for the plant! Everyone in nuclear energy should thank YOU!

10 years ago

Meredith is a great example of the kind of person we need more of in all of the problem localities where nuclear energy is getting unfair treatment. Her qualities are all the right ones as a grassroots spokesperson. She’s a woman with a solid education and background in nuclear and that’s three more qualities than most of us advocates have. Quebec’s Gentilly, Toronto’s GE fuel company, Port Hopes contamination lands are all in need of sensible rational spokes-persons. In addition to people like Meredith it is still worth trying to reach people of influence and to get them to speak out when the anti-nuke propagandists show up.

10 years ago
Reply to  Rick Maltese

Rick, you are correct. People of influence (legislators, professors) can be very important.

Regular people have to show up, too, though. For example, at NRC meetings, the NRC starts the meeting by acknowledging the legislators who are in attendance. The state Rep from Vernon, Patty O’Donnell, has been a strong supporter of Vermont Yankee. At least one meeting, when NRC moderator said O’Donnell’s name as part of the list of legislators-in-attendance, the opponents burst out with a loud chorus of “boo!”

At the most recent PSB meeting, opponents didn’t do that. No shouting and no boo-ing. Why? Because they suddenly learned how to be polite? Or maybe, because they were outnumbered?

People must show up. That’s the bottom line for me. Even notables will get booed and intimidated if regular people don’t show up.

10 years ago

The first thing I want to say is THANK YOU to Steve, Cheryl and Rick. ” The Western Critical tradition” and “relentless.” Wow. Thank you, thank you thank you. THANK YOU!

I am going to add one thing, though, that is VERY important. That is: It takes a village. I am far from someone who did all this by myself. Howard Shaffer started the project, really. He was volunteering to speak to local groups about nuclear energy long before I even started the blog.

Other people read my blog and contacted me and write letters. Other people wrote letters and have never read my blog. The Ethan Allen Institute welcomed my work as the “Energy Education Project” and the American Nuclear Society (ANS) started the “Vermont Pilot Project” with Howard Shaffer. ANS now has a set of similar projects called the “Grassroots Projects.” These two organizations helped immensely by sponsoring our activities along with their other not-for-profit work. It takes a lot of people to be effective.

I have been lucky to have a blog that has served as a rallying-place. That is basically why I started the blog, and it has worked very well. I am not just going “aw shucks…” here. I recognize that I did something (started a blog) and that has been a voice and rally point. BUT I would have been nothing but The Lone Blogger, except for everyone else. Except for Howard Shaffer, the ANS, the people who write letters to the editor, the people at Ethan Allen Institute, the people who come to speak at hearings, etc. So many people!

It takes a village.

Jarret Adams
10 years ago

What a pleasure to read this. The work that Meredith does in Vermont should be recognized, and its great to see this point of view expressed here. Keep up the good work, Steve.

10 years ago

A couple of completely uneducated thoughts on this issue as I understand(which will probably completely annoy the people involved). One is as I understand the main utilities in Vermont had a long term ten year contract with Vermont Yankee that expired last spring. At the behest of the State of Vermont it was not renewed on the basis that the state wanted to and thought VY would be closed by now. All of the power Vermont Yankee produces is now sold into the wholesale marke benefiting NH and MA but not necessarily VT.

It seems in my mind a more proper compromise position would have been for Vermont to sign another ten year supply contract with VY with a firm guarantee of plant closure in ten years. Instead VT now essentially has the worst of all worlds. Additionally there have already been three single unit nuclear plants decommissioned in New England with all of their spent fuel still awaiting removal despite the fact at all three locations just about all sign there was once a power plant is gone.