“Non-violent creative tumult”

Film documents long campaign to get Vermont Yankee shut down

Power Struggle is available for at home screening for a limited time, March 1-30. A portion of the $12 ticket price benefits Beyond Nuclear. Purchase your ticket here.

By Linda Pentz Gunter

“Our voice as the people of Vermont is what matters,” says Vermont activist, Chad Simmons, early in Robbie Leppzer’s film, Power Struggle. Later, he entreats an official from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a public meeting: “Listen to us! Listen to us”.

By the time the film ends, as the struggle to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant —which Leppzer follows for five years — unfolds, Simmons can rejoinder: “People power works.” For once, the saga of an anti-nuclear campaign has a happy ending.

Vermont Yankee, a GE Mark I boiling water reactor identical to those that melted down at Fukushima Daiichi, opened in 1972 in Vernon, Vermont, close to the Massachusetts and New Hampshire borders. Citizen protests began immediately, and went on until the plant finally closed, on December 29, 2014.

Leppzer may have set out to tell that story, but a lot more transpired during filming, both complicating but also validating the narrative. A story ostensibly about the power of protest — by the people of Vermont and its enlightened state government — quickly broadened into a condemnation of the nuclear industry as a whole. This is borne witness to at the start of the film through the observations of nuclear engineer and whistleblower, Arnie Gundersen, when Leppzer’s original narrative is abruptly interrupted by the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Nuclear engineer and whistleblower, Arnie Gundersen, at the microphone, is in many ways the star witness of Leppzer’s film. (Photo courtesy of the filmmaker)

Indeed, it is the Fukushima disaster that provides the most poignant scene in the film, as we watch a tragedy unfold far from the green mountains of Vermont, yet one that provides a window into what might befall that state and its citizens should they fail to shut Vermont Yankee down.

As we watch Fukushima evacuees scurrying from their homes, heads bowed, clutching carrier bags stuffed with hastily grabbed belongings, we know something they don’t yet: that they were not to return, possibly ever, and certainly not for a very long time. Everything they had in those meager bags would be all they would save from the place they called home.

This is a central message in the film, which needs no other expression. It is implicit. And it is why we see the diminutive Frances Crowe, then in her mid-nineties, setting out for yet another arrest at the gates of Vermont Yankee, a month after the meltdowns at Fukushima. “All I have left is my body,” she says. 

Crowe, who died in 2019 at 100, is a legend in New England now. Arrested more than 100 times in her life for a variety of causes, hers is the conscience of the film, her commitment at the heart of what gave the people of Vermont that long-sought victory.

Crowe believed implicitly in the power of protest. She did not need to be asked, “does it really change anything?” That conviction is confirmed by historian, Lawrence Wittner, Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press. ) Wittner has studied protest movements in depth and says they can make all the difference.

“It’s hard to imagine the abolition of slavery, the improvement in workers’ lives and livelihoods, the advances toward gender equality, the safeguarding of civil liberties and civil rights, and the prevention of war, including nuclear war, without popular mobilization,” Wittner said, reminding of us Frederick Douglass’s famous quote: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Consummate activist, Frances Crowe, is at the moral heart of Power Struggle. Crowe lived to a hundred and when asked how many times she had been arrested, always replied, “not enough.” (Photo courtesy of the filmmaker.)

Progress in closing Vermont Yankee certainly meant struggle. As activist Bob Bady of Safe and Green, says in the film, it meant creating some “non-violent creative tumult.” 

And so we see Crowe and her affinity group of elders, wearing their death masks. We see a freezing, 11-day, 126-mile walk in January to the statehouse in Montpelier to ensure a vote goes for closure. And we see, on a far sunnier day in March 2012, 136 people choose arrest, including Nuclear Freeze campaign co-founder, Randy Kehler, who says that at some point you just have to “speak with your whole life and your whole body”.

If there is a “star” of the film, it is almost certainly Gundersen, who had built the fuel racks at Vermont Yankee and who, in 1990 while working at Nuclear Energy Services in Connecticut, had been fired after calling attention to his discovery of radioactive material stored in an accounting safe. Persecution and harassment followed, but that decision by NES was their biggest mistake. Freed to tell the truth, Gundersen has been an invaluable, scientifically-qualified source and watchdog for opponents of nuclear power ever since.

The film opens with Gundersen commenting to RT TV on the Fukushima disaster just underway. “No, I don’t think crisis can be averted,” he tells the interviewer. 

A series of mini-crises also occurred at Vermont Yankee, with only the efforts of “people power” averting the big one by getting it permanently closed before the worst happened. Even Entergy’s communications representative for Vermont Yankee, Larry Smith, admits that, “You are going to have incidents. That’s just a fact of life.”

It’s a remarkable admission, given those incidents included contaminating groundwater with radioactive tritium through leaking pipes, which Entergy denied existed. And, given that an “incident” at Vermont Yankee could easily have meant a catastrophic accident. As Gundersen points out in the film, the designers of the Mark I “knew it was incapable of withstanding an accident since the day it was built.”

Smith is not the only voice in the film supportive of Vermont Yankee’s continued operation. Leppzer talks to a Vernon legislator for whom the plant workers are family, and to locals, including one dairy farmer, whose land abuts the plant property, and who recognizes the risks but has decided passively to accept them.

Filmmaker, Robbie Leppzer, set out to tell the story of the Vermont Yankee protesters. Then three units at Fukushima Daiichi, identical to the Vermont plant, melted down. (Photo courtesy of Cate Woolner)

In the end, Entergy decided to close the plant for economic reasons — as Gundersen points out it was going to cost the company another $250 million in repair and replacement, “and they couldn’t afford it.”

“The plant costs exceed the plant revenue,” the company stated, and it was nothing whatever to do with the power of protest, or safety, or the persistent opposition from citizens and the state.

Except that it was. 

“As the forces of privilege often dominate the communications media and other major institutions, protest campaigns help to break through the information blackout and educate the public on important issues that would otherwise escape their attention,” said Wittner.

“You need community to do this so you can support one another and move ahead together,” says Crowe.

“The closing of Vermont Yankee is a victory for democracy,” says Deb Katz of Citizens Awareness Network. “Entergy would continue to operate if it wasn’t for all the hard work all these people did to make this happen.”

“They pulled the plug on Vermont Yankee for economics, but it was economics under the scrutiny of a smart electorate who had kept themselves informed for the last ten years,” concluded Gundersen.

Power Struggle is indeed about many struggles, including the one of conscience. During the film, Crowe tells Leppzer she has been asked, frequently, how many times she has been arrested. “Not enough” is what she always tells them.

Not enough, because some things are worth fighting for. As actor and activist, Court Dorsey, tells Leppzer in a scene immediately following the Fukushima evacuation clip, while he gathers wood near his bucolic home in Wendell, Massachusetts: “Those folks had to evacuate and God knows for how long. I love this place. I love where I live. I don’t want that to happen here. I don’t want to see this beautiful paradise destroyed like that.”

For more information: www.PowerStruggleMovie.com

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