BRATTLEBORO—Women wearing white masks and black T-shirts silently stood vigil at the front of the Brattleboro Union High School’s multipurpose room. Men and women displaying green and white “VY for VT” buttons stood across the room.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s annual public meeting in Brattleboro on May 23 started with a protest and ended with a walkout.
The NRC hosts annual public meetings around the country in communities with nuclear power plants. At the meeting at BUHS, the NRC had planned to present Vermont Yankee’s 2011 Performance Review. The plant, owned by Entergy Nuclear, received an “all green” report card, the highest rating.
However, this presentation never made it to the floor.
Many of the people, pro and anti-nuclear, signed up to speak never made it to the microphone either.
A call of “mic check!” came from the front of the room.
Multiple voices called and responded: “We are threatened by the failure of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect us and our environment. We demand that the NRC shut down Vermont Yankee now.”
“No, we’re not!” called a voice from the back of the room.
Karl Farrar, general council for NRC Region 1, was charged with facilitating the night’s public meeting. He told the protesters that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff couldn’t have people standing behind them. Once the protesters sit, he said, the meeting could start.
The room erupted into chants of “Shut it down!” Pro-VY supporters snapped photos of protesters.
After Farrar’s unheeded requests for cooperation, NRC staff exited the room amid protesters’ calls for a “people’s meeting.”
A NRC security team member, who refused to give his name, stationed two of the six Brattleboro Police officers who were on duty in front of the door to the hallway.
The police, under orders from the NRC, did not allow the public or press into the hallway. According to NRC spokesperson Diane Screnci, staff discussed their next move in the hall.
Although the NRC’s 2002 policy statement governing public meetings allows the NRC private conversations some audience members said they were intimidated by the police blocking the main doors, and left through a second exit.
After a brief conversation, the NRC staff returned.
Farrar stood in the center of the room and tried to resume the meeting as he read questions from the public submitted on index cards.
Prior to the meeting, NRC staff asked the audience to write down questions on index cards at check-in. Farrar attempted to maintain order during the meeting by calling people to speak in order of the index cards.
Anti-nuclear activists, however, continued to claim the meeting as their own, feeling free to communicate their frustration over the continued operation of Vermont Yankee beyond their written questions. They peppered the NRC staff with questions about VY’s safety, evacuation zones, strontium-90 contaminated fish, and storage of spent fuel.
The question that topped theprotesters’ list: “What do we have to say tonight to get the NRC to close this plant down?”
A plea for closure
The meeting came on the heels of the resignation of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko [see News Analysis, Voices section], and a statement by ISO New England that the region’s electrical grid would remain stable without VY.
Chad Simmons of the Safe & Green Campaign, during his turn at the microphone, told the NRC that he attended that night’s meeting despite feeling positive that the commission would not listen.
“We feel we’re not being heard,” he said. “We want the plant shut down.”
Laurel Green of Brattleboro said the people had looked to the state to close the plant. It hasn’t worked. The NRC is the people’s other option for help, she said.
“We don’t trust you,” said Green. “Can you show me in any way that I can believe that we’re safe?”
Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy and the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel, complimented those who repeatedly show up at NRC meetings despite feeling like their attendance serves no meaningful purpose.
“Clearly, we’re at an impasse,” she said.
To the NRC staff, Edwards expressed concern about the spent fuel stored in VY’s spent-fuel pool. She wanted to see the fuel moved out of the pool, located above the plant’s reactor, to dry-cask storage immediately after the fuel’s five-year cooling period.
“Please persist on this,” she said.
Activist Hattie Nestel said that Entergy lied about releasing strontium-90 into the Connecticut River. Documents on the NRC’s website showed the commission knew that VY released the radioactive isotope. Yet the commission has done nothing, she said.
“We’re supposed to trust you?” she asked.
Responding to the calls
Chris Miller, Region I director for the NRC’s Division of Reactor Safety, responded to the public’s questions.
Miller said the NRC operated independently from the nuclear industry.
Audience members said that the NRC lied and were untrustworthy.
“We do tell the truth,” said Miller. “Entergy does not pay my paycheck.”
To a question that the NRC had loosened regulations in VY’s favor, Miller responded he was not aware of any such measures.
Miller explained that in emergency planning for a nuclear accident, Entergy answers to the NRC for on-site planning. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in conjunction with local communities and the state, regulates off-site emergency management.
According to Miller, the NRC considers both dry-cask and spent-pool storage safe. That could change, however, with more study, he said.
Miller also assured the audience that the NRC has required Entergy to monitor all releases from the plant, including liquids into the river or gases into the air. He said there were not significant amounts of radiation in any gases released from the plant.
The director outlined three ways citizens could influence the NRC’s process by working through the NRC.
Citizens can request new rule-making, they can make what the commission calls a “2.206 request,” asking NRC to take certain actions, or they can move through the commission’s allegation process.
When an audience member said she assumed Miller was pro-nuclear, Miller said that assumption was incorrect. The NRC was interested in making the plants run safely.
Activist Leslie Sullivan Sachs took her turn at the microphone. She called, “Mic check.”
The audience echoed as Sullivan Sachs told the NRC that “With all due respect to our fellow citizens whose careful testimony will fall upon the NRC’s deaf ears, the people are walking out.”
In a previous interview, Sullivan Sachs said that protesters planned a walkout. For 40 years, citizens had played by the rules, attending meetings and giving input, she said. But for 40 years, she added, the NRC has not listened.
“The whole thing is a farce,” she said. “We’ve done our best.”
Protesters filed out of the meeting chanting, “Shut it down,” while other audience members and NRC staff stood bewildered.
Clay Turnbull, spokesperson for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC), sat in the back of the room still waiting for his turn to speak.
Earlier, walking from the BUHS parking area to the meeting, Turnbull met Entergy employees who were so angry that they couldn’t talk.
“It’s not helpful,” said Turnbull.
Turnbull arrived late, delayed by the preparation of meeting documents. NEC Technical Advisor Raymond Shadis had compiled a nine-page analysis of the NRC’s 2011 assessment of VY, a rebuttal to the scheduled presentation that the audience would not hear.
According to Shadis’s analysis, the NRC does not have adequate data to say that VY has operated in a safe manner.
“The Annual Assessment Letter opens with a misleading statement,” wrote Shadis. “Say what [the] NRC will about its inspection activities at Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, it cannot with any modicum of intellectual honesty defend its Annual Assessment Letter’s determination that, ‘overall, Vermont Yankee operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives.’”
Shadis’s document quotes David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimating that NRC Resident Inspectors thoroughly inspect about 5 percent of the plant annually.
At that rate, wrote Shadis, it would take about 20 years for inspectors to inspect the entire plant.
State versus federal authority
After the meeting, Miller stressed that the NRC remained an independent organization that verified all nuclear plants’ performance indicators.
The NRC inspectors, he said, verify that a plant meets all required standards. If it meets these standards, the agency approves its operation.
Shutting down a plant that meets the NRC’s safety standards involves negotiations between the state and the utility owner, he said.
But the federal agency stays out of the debate when “the plant is in a community where citizens don’t want it,” said Miller.
“It’s not the NRC’s role in that discussion,” he said.