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Olga Peters/The Commons

Members of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution pose for a group picture at their 40th anniversary celebration on Saturday in Brattleboro.

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Older than Vermont Yankee

The New England Coalition looks back on 40 years

BRATTLEBORO—It was 1967 when Diana Sidebotham and her mother, Esther Poneck, first heard about the plan to build a nuclear plant in Vernon.

Sidebotham, then living on her mother’s farm in Putney, said she first thought, “What a good thing to do with the destructive atom.”

But Sidebotham’s second thought was that nuclear energy possesses the potential for catastrophic damage.

That thought she has held for more than 40 years.

On April 9, 1971, Sidebotham, Poneck, and 19 other trustees incorporated the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC).

“The founders’ goals were to inform themselves and the public about all aspects of the U.S. civilian nuclear power program, to ask all relevant questions about design, construction, operations, public health and safety, and environmental effects before the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant received a license,” wrote Sidebotham and Sylvia Field, another longtime officer, in a chronicle of NEC’s history.

“Few answers were received, and NEC intervened in the operating license proceeding to oppose the issuance of the license,” Sidebotham and Field wrote, referring to events in 1971.

NEC has had intervenor status in nuclear power plant-related cases since 1971. An intervenor, according to uslaw.com, has “clearly ascertainable interests and perspectives essential to a judicial determination.”

Forty years later, NEC boasts 300 dues-paying members and a mailing list of 2,700 people.

On Saturday night, at the West Village Meeting House, more than 60 members and friends helped the NEC celebrate its 40th anniversary. The event honored members and included a potluck dinner, cake, and contra dancing.

Sidebotham and other members reminisced about the work of past members, talked about how much the dialogue about the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant has changed, and promised to continue their work on nuclear issues long after the plant shuts down.

“I don’t work for a living,” members remember Poneck saying. “I work for a living.”

In the beginning

NEC started its advocacy work during Vermont Yankee’s construction. The plant wouldn’t receive its first operating license for another two years.

In 1971, the NEC’s safety concerns centered on issues like the integrity of the Mark 1 generator’s containment vessel; the susceptibility of safety systems to fire; concerns about faulty fuel, poor quality control, and quality assurance; and emergency planning.

NEC’s primary course of action has been legal intervention in cases before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Vermont’s Public Service Board. The organization also provides citizen education.

The coalition has participated in legal proceedings regarding such issues as the plant’s sale to Entergy in 2002, the power uprate in 2006, and the NRC’s relicensing process, said Robert “Jake” Stewart, NEC vice-president-elect and trustee.

“We always felt we could be the most effective through legal intervention,” said Steward, who has been a member “on and off” for 40 years.

He remembers it was Poneck, who died in 1991, who persuaded him to join the coalition.

According to Stewart, despite the NRC’s 20-year operating license renewal granted to the plant last month, Vermont Yankee does not have the right to operate for another 20 years. It can do so if the Legislature votes to allow the Public Service Board to grant Entergy a Certificate of Public Good.

NEC’s policy has been to use a “fact-based” advocacy approach, meaning that it prefers legal intervention and engagement with scientists to staging protests or civil disobedience.

Stewart said that other organizations that work mostly through public demonstrations are “necessary ingredients too, because they raise public awareness.”

But protests aren’t NEC’s style, he said.

Sidebotham agreed, saying opposition to nuclear plants “takes many forms” and that she supports the actions of other organizations “as long as they are peaceful and not violent.”

Percolating awareness

Executive Director Clay Turnbull, NEC’s only staff member, thinks that Vermont Yankee’s sale to Entergy, based in Louisiana, served as a wake-up call to southern Vermont. Suddenly, he said, Vermonters were facing a corporation with ties to stakeholders, but not to the state in which it operates its plant.

In recent years, an increase in the overall awareness about Vermont Yankee has percolated into the consciousness of Vermonters outside Windham County, said Leslie Staudinger, an NEC trustee.

Staudinger lived in central Vermont until last July but has been involved with NEC for 10 years. Her central Vermont neighbors used to ask, “Why should we care [about Vermont Yankee]?” she said.

Staudinger, a mother of three, said that the long-term and potentially genetic effects of radiation exposure concern her.

Two relatives, she said, lived 20 miles from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. One relative was 5 years old in 1979, when the plant experienced a partial meltdown, and has “very serious health problems” that Staudinger attributes to radiation released during that incident.

“But living with it [the plant] day in and day out, I’m amazed how it saturates the local culture,” Staudinger said.

She said that she doesn’t feel constantly anxious, but her awareness of the potential danger resides in a “state of semi-consciousness all the time.”

The election of Gov. Peter Shumlin, a hometown governor “who understands the challenges” of Vermont Yankee, has “made a significant difference,” compared to when Jim Douglas, a strong supporter of the plant, served as governor, said Staudinger.

Then and now

Turnbull said a July 2008 conversation with Dr. Joram Hopenfeld, a former NRC commissioner and engineer, left a significant impression on him.

He asked Dr. Hopenfeld, who was testifying for the NEC as an expert witness in an Atomic Safety Licensing Board hearing, “Why do you do this?”

Turnbull said Dr. Hopenfeld told him that the younger generation working in the nuclear field doesn’t have an appreciation for what they’re working with, and had grown too self-assured.

“Many of our [1971] concerns have come home to roost,” said Sidebotham, referring to Vermont Yankee safety issues.

Stewart said that the NEC is the only intervenor with outstanding contentions on Vermont Yankee.

The open docket, he said, pertains to the underground cables at the plant. The cables are subjected to water and other conditions for which they were never designed.

“It’s a most significant issue,” said Stewart.

Sidebotham said that one issue left on the back burner for years is the disposal of nuclear waste stored at Vermont Yankee.

In the 1970s, when the NEC first broached the waste issue, said Sidebotham, they were told by the powers-that-be that the issue was “not germane” and “would be dealt with later.”

“Now is later,” she said, and the more than 650 tons of spent fuel at Vermont Yankee sit in what “amounts to an industrial building” with a “tin roof,” adding that there’s more spent fuel at Vermont Yankee than at Fukushima Daiichi, the Japanese nuclear complex of the same design and vintage that was heavily damaged in the aftermath of last month’s earthquake and tsunami.

She said that if Vermont Yankee should ever go the way of Fukushima, the nuclear pollution would devastate the tri-state area.

Goodbye, Vermont Seal of Quality, she said.

Never, ever give up

Staudinger said that she can see a light at the end of the Vermont Yankee tunnel.

“March 21, 2012 is a very nice date to hold on to,” she said, referring to the expiration of the plant’s state Certificate of Public Good.

And, despite the persistence, technical minutiae, and dense legal nature of the nuclear issue, Staudinger remains committed. Except for the catastrophic potential of nuclear weapons, she said, no other issue has such “horrifying consequences.”

Edward “Ned” Childs, NEC president-elect and trustee, said that before the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, he thought that “someday” Vermont Yankee would close.

But now, there’s no reason to stall shutting down Vermont Yankee or the worldwide fleet, he said.

Childs joked that working for a nuclear-free future was a “quixotic vision,” and that the coalition has spent “40 years tilting at windmills.”

But, he added, there’s no real option once you know what you know about nuclear plants.

“There’s work to be done,” said Sidebotham. “It’s something you can’t not do.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #96 (Wednesday, April 13, 2011).

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