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Clay Turnbull, a trustee and staffer at the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, points to a Google Earth map of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

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Activist arrested at Vermont Yankee fence

VERNON—The battle over long-term storage of Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel has spilled into criminal court.

Clay Turnbull, a trustee and staffer of the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, was cited March 3 by the Windham County Sheriff’s Department for unlawful trespass at the plant property in Vernon.

Turnbull is scheduled to appear in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division next month to answer the allegation. But in an interview the day after the incident, the 53-year-old Townshend resident said he was taking photos for use in the spent fuel debate and did not know he was on Vermont Yankee property.

“I was very careful to respect signs on fences that said, ‘No trespassing,’” Turnbull said. “I would have no use for the photographs if they were not taken from a legal perspective.”

Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn said he could not comment on the specifics of a pending legal case. But Cohn did say the incident caused a stir at the shutdown plant, where hundreds of staffers still work and security remains tight.

“The actions that (Turnbull) took put the plant into a high-security alert,” Cohn said. “I can’t tell you exactly what that means, other than we have security measures that were put in place.”

The backdrop of the criminal case is Entergy’s quest to construct a new concrete pad for storage of Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel. The plant ceased producing power at the end of 2014, but most of its radioactive spent fuel remains in a cooling pool in the reactor building.

Entergy has pledged to have all of that fuel moved into more-stable dry cask storage by the end of 2020. The company first needs Vermont Public Service Board permission to build a pad to hold those casks, and the plan has caused some controversy.

There is general consensus that the fuel is safer in dry casks. But some believe Entergy’s proposal to place the new pad next to an existing storage pad—and to have both pads situated near the plant’s reactor building—could negatively affect the timing and cost of decommissioning.

Entergy has defended its plans, with company administrators saying the fuel pads won’t have any significant effect on decommissioning. They also contend that significantly altering the storage proposal could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The New England Coalition is a longtime opponent of Vermont Yankee and has participated in the spent fuel case. Entergy had sought to block the testimony of coalition adviser Raymond Shadis, but the Public Service Board last month overruled the company’s objections.

Turnbull traveled to Vermont Yankee on March 3 to take photos that he believes would rebut Entergy’s assertions that the spent fuel facility will have limited visual impacts. He said he walked through a wooded area near the Connecticut River to reach the plant’s fence line.

A press release says the sheriff’s department was summoned by Vermont Yankee security for “a man with a camera within the perimeter hiding along the inside fence line.” Turnbull contends he wasn’t hiding, but was crouching down to take photos.

When a sheriff’s deputy arrived, Turnbull said he left the area with the deputy and deleted the photos upon request. That does not mean, however, that Turnbull is acknowledging that he knowingly set foot on Entergy property.

“I absolutely did not cross any fence ... and there’s no indication as to where the public was not welcome,” Turnbull said.

He also defended the purpose of his visit. Turnbull cited testimony during a recent Public Service Board hearing in which a landscape architect retained by Entergy claimed the dry casks “would not be visible from the fence line.”

“I’ve been on site numerous times, including for this (Public Service Board) docket,” Turnbull said. “So I’m quite familiar with it and quite familiar with where the second pad was proposed, and based on those experiences, I concluded that Entergy’s expert witness testimony was not credible or factual.”

The purpose of taking the photos was to confirm that conclusion, Turnbull said. “(Entergy) appears more interested in protecting the public from the truth rather than protecting the casks,” Turnbull added.

While he would not comment on specifics in the case against Turnbull, Cohn issued a statement saying Vermont Yankee’s fences and checkpoints “are only a small part of its ... in-depth security strategy.”

“In fact, much of its defense lies in the things you can’t see,” Cohn wrote. “For example, while a trespasser might drive into the parking lot outside the plant’s protected area, there is continuous monitoring of all areas across the site and additional security measures in place at the protected area boundary.”

The plant’s security force “will identify and detain a trespasser,” Cohn said. “Pursuant to procedure, local law enforcement will be notified, and the trespasser might be issued a notice against trespass.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #347 (Wednesday, March 9, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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