The Magazine

No-Nukes of the North

Vermont's very civil war over nuclear power.

Apr 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 30 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Brattleboro, Vermont

THE MEETING would be starting at 6:00 p.m. in Brattleboro, and I would have to drive across the state to get there. The event would last at least three hours, probably longer, so I might not get home much before midnight. And, then, the Red Sox and Yankees were playing at Fenway. Staying home seemed like a far more attractive prospect than sitting in the bleachers at a high school gym and listening to my fellow Vermonters talk about a subject they have been wearing out for more than 30 years now--nuclear power.

But I decided to go because, lately, the issue of nuclear power has come into play. Articles in Wired and Forbes have made the pro-nuclear case, and then, in a sure sign that the old attitudes were changing, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had written a pro-nuke piece a few days earlier. The new, trendy case for nuclear power is that it makes electricity without putting carbon into the air. If you believe that greenhouse gases are a cause of global warming and that this increase in the world's temperature will have catastrophic effects, then nukes look pretty good. Global warming is the hip, new crisis; Three Mile Island is so last century.

The anti-nuclear people, then, are losing ground and have become the reactionaries in a fight where they believe they are on the side of the future. In Vermont these people call themselves progressives, and the state's lone congressman, Bernie Sanders, is typical of the breed. Clinging with a death grip to the certainties of the '60s, they can be self-righteous, sanctimonious, utterly humorless, and incapable of civility when dealing with political opponents. (They also make good ice cream.) If you live in Vermont and don't share their faith, you can get pretty tired, pretty quickly of their didacticism. So I was looking forward, maliciously, to seeing them struggle with their new status.

When I got on the highway, I turned on the radio to Sean Hannity and Charles Rangel shouting at each other. The issue, it seemed, was Social Security reform. Rangel thought President Bush should be impeached and Hannity thought Rangel should apologize for saying so. It became less edifying after that. So I went with a tape of oldies, instead, and listened to Chuck Berry through a series of quaint little postcard towns, each with its village green, country store, and austere church steeple.

I wasn't sure of my directions but I knew I had the right place when I saw the rusting pickup with a hand-painted plywood sign in the bed. Veterans Against Nuclear Poison. Shaping up, I thought, to be that kind of night.

Banners on the walls of the gym commemorated various state championships in football, basketball, track, and skiing. Folding metal chairs had been arranged in rows from goal to goal and the bleachers had been pulled out to accommodate what looked to be about 600 people. Cultural profiling was no problem. The people with the pony tails were the anti-nukes.

The specific issue under consideration was "dry cask" storage at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant a few miles south of the high school. The plant has been storing spent fuel in a seven-story pool of water since it began operating some 32 years ago on ground that had previously been a dairy farm. The pool was never meant for permanent storage. According to the original vision, most nuclear waste would be reprocessed and the rest would be stored safely somewhere else by the federal government.

Well, the federals changed their minds about reprocessing. Too much risk that some of the fissionable material that is a byproduct of the process would wind up in the wrong hands. (Europeans countries, among others, continue to reprocess.) And, after a couple of decades of research and millions of dollars in construction, a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is still empty.

Nevada doesn't want the stuff and says putting it in Yucca Mountain is an unacceptable risk. Never mind that everyone from the NRC to the EPA has said the site is safe. The attitude is simply--Not In My Backyard. Or, in this case, Not In My New Backyard. Clark County is the fastest-growing county in the nation and it is, basically, Las Vegas. But a city built on chance doesn't want to take any chances with nuclear waste. Among the objections to Yucca Mountain is that there is no way of knowing if it will still be stable and safe 100,000 years from now. Anyone accustomed to the odds in a casino ought to be able to live with that kind of uncertainty.