Does “out of sight, out of mind” apply in the case of nuclear power? If so, northern Vermonters likely feel no more threatened by the state’s sole nuclear power plant in Vernon than they do by the one in Fukushima, Japan.
But what if a nuke with a 50-story-tall smokestack had been built in Orwell, alongside the Mount Independence historic site and half a mile from a fault line? And how would Chittenden County residents feel about a nuclear plant with roughly twice the generating capacity of Vermont Yankee on Lake Champlain in Charlotte?
Those weren’t hypothetical questions 40 years ago. Few remember the controversies today, but in the 1960s and ’70s, Charlotte and Orwell were seriously considered as sites for nuclear energy facilities.
Nascent citizen movements put an end to both plans. And their victories helped nurture a conservation ethic that has since spread around the world.
Many concerns were expressed in regard to the nuke that Central Vermont Public Service proposed for Charlotte, recalls Nancy Wood, now the editor of the Charlotte News. “The big one that ended the idea of the plant was the impact of thermal pollution on Lake Champlain,” she says. Activists associated with the Lake Champlain Committee argued in the late-’60s that heated water discharged from the 1000-megawatt station would badly damage the lake’s ecosystems.
In Orwell, the fledgling Vermont Public Interest Research Group aided locals opposed to a later plan by the same utility and by the Vermont Electric Power Co., aka VELCO, for what would have been known as the Hough Crossing nuclear plant. One of the key objections involved its potentially destructive impact on Mount Independence, which was then gaining recognition as Vermont’s most important Revolutionary War site. The Orwell plant was “the first project of its kind defeated for reasons of historic preservation,” says Shoreham attorney Ron Morgan, a leader of the Mount Independence Coalition.
Two other locations in Vermont came up as potentially suitable for nuclear plants in addition to the one on the Connecticut River that became the home of Vermont Yankee. CVPS spokesman Steve Costello says his company purchased “several hundred acres” in Shoreham in the ’60s with a view toward possibly constructing a nuclear or fossil-fuel facility there. At least theoretical consideration was also given in a 1974 VELCO report to splitting atoms for energy on the banks of the Missisquoi River in North Troy.
Neither of those plans was developed as fully as the proposals for Charlotte and Orwell. CVPS was apparently dead serious about building a second Vermont nuke at one of those sites.
The Charlotte plant was to have been installed on a 140-acre, 19th-century apple orchard purchased by CVPS in 1967. Today, chickens strut there along a gravel road lined with horse fencing and enormous homes with million-dollar views of the lake and Adirondacks.
Back in the 1960s, Charlotte was not so prosperous. Many of the town’s farmers were being squeezed by property taxes that had not yet been eased by a state program, known as Current Use, that was crafted to encourage productive use of agricultural land. “Farmers were being forced out of business,” Wood remembers. “They wanted the plant because it would pay a lot in property tax and reduce their own rates.”
This was also an era when the risks of nuclear power were not well understood; atomic energy was widely seen as the answer to the country’s burgeoning demand for electricity. The November 1965 blackout, which left 30 million New Englanders and New Yorkers in the dark, added fuel to that fire.
In addition, the environmental consciousness awakened by Rachel Carson’s 1962 best seller, Silent Spring, was only beginning to influence public debates on energy issues.
Nevertheless, “a substantial majority” of Charlotte residents did not want a nuke in their neighborhood, says Sallie Soule, an 82-year-old former Vermont legislator. The battle over the plant “turned me into an environmental activist and got me involved in the Lake Champlain Committee,” Soule recollects.
Some 1200 Vermonters turned out for a presentation on September 11, 1969, by the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and 39 of its staff members. The New York Times reported on the four-hour meeting in the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium, organized by Gov. Deane Davis, characterizing it as the first public forum at which federal nuclear policy makers responded to citizens’ misgivings about the technology.
CVPS eventually abandoned its Charlotte plan and later sold the land it had bought in Shoreham, but the utility moved forward with VELCO in seeking to build a nuke plant in a thinly populated part of Orwell along East Creek. Many of the same economic arguments were put forward in this mid-’70s showdown.
“Most of the community was sold on the idea that you can forget about having to pay property taxes once the plant is established,” says Bob Maguire, a Shoreham attorney active in the campaign against the Orwell nuke. He notes that Vermont Yankee, which started operating in 1972, was being cited as a model of how tax burdens would be lightened in a rural community clever enough to entice a nuclear utility.
The 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania was still a few years off when Orwell residents considered the Hough Crossing proposal. Some were firmly opposed because of the plan to create a 1700-acre cooling pond by damming East Creek, described today by Joe Taparauskas, then an Orwell antinuke activist, as “an ecological wonderland.”
The local opposition proved formidable, despite the attraction of the tax-reduction angle. In a nonbinding 1977 referendum, Orwell voters rejected the plant by an eight-vote margin, 152-144.
Maguire had made an eloquent and prescient case against the proposal in the student newspaper published by Middlebury College. “It would be difficult to conceive of a more reckless and wasteful misuse of a natural resource,” Maguire wrote in the 1972 Middlebury Campus article. “But it is more difficult not to despair of a society willing to accept such outrages in the name of ‘growth’ and ‘progress.’”
Giovanna Peebles, an archaeologist with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, wrote in a 2004 scholarly account of the controversy that the Orwell plan “died for a variety of reasons, not the least being that the project was half a mile from a known fault line.”
But a consulting firm retained by the state at the time had come to a different conclusion. Maguire paraphrased the findings of its report in his article: “There has been no activity along this fault in millions of years, so it should not pose any problem.”
Coincidentally, the sponsors of the Fukushima plant said they had built it to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis of a magnitude that were judged highly unlikely to occur.