VERMONT - Anti-nuke activists have talked a lot of talk about the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor since 1972. Now they're taking it to the streets. On March 24, concerned citizens left Greenfield, Massachusetts, for a Gandhi-style march to Burlington - as in, on foot - in opposition to the relicensing of the Vernon facility. The 35-year-old reactor's operating license will expire in 2012.
The week-long, 173-mile trek was organized by the Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), a Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, environmental advocacy organization, with support from the Leverett, Massachusetts, Nippon Zan Buddhist order. On each day of the journey, participants are stopping for potluck meals at community centers and churches.
"I'm not a Buddhist, but I feel that [the walk] is a compelling practice for this age of danger," says Hattie Nestel, the event's head organizer. Nestel has lived at Nippon Zan's "Peace Pagoda" monastery since 1995. She's also participated in similar long-range actions in India, Germany and Nicaragua.
Nestel sees the walk as a tactic for raising awareness about the dangers posed by nuclear power in Vermont. "People are very dispirited," she notes. "I'm trying to reinvigorate them by walking and fasting."
Fellow walker Brother Toowbee, a monk of the Nippon Zan order, believes the connection between spirituality and political action makes sense. "We're spiritual beings," he asserts. "When policies endanger our lives, we can't ignore that. We have to address that through prayer and peaceful action."
Vermont Yankee, which is owned by the Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation, produces approximately one-third of Vermont's power. Residents of the state, along with those of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, are currently weighing the benefits of nuclear fuel - which doesn't contribute to the greenhouse effect - against the Vernon plant's associated health and security risks.
The nuclear power plant is one of 103 operating in the U.S. Like the other plants, it will soon exhaust its capacity for storing spent radioactive waste. A recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, repository - where Vermont Yankee's overflow waste would be sent - will be completed by 2017 at the earliest. But an October 2006 report by 32 citizen groups, including the Sierra Club, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and CAN, calls Yucca Mountain "unsafe for geologic or interim storage of nuclear waste" and says the waste disposal program "remains mired in bad science [and] mismanagement."
In addition, notes Chris Williams, a CAN organizer and Hancock resident, Vermont Yankee poses immediate dangers to people living nearby. Williams, who likens the nuclear power and weapons industries to "a pair of conjoined twins," has been arrested twice for demonstrating at Vermont Yankee, most recently in January. His group is demanding "more exacting radiological monitoring by an independent agency."
Entergy spokesman Rob Williams - no relation to Chris - claims Vermont Yankee is "operating very reliably." He adds, "The marchers have a right to make their opinion known. Hopefully they'll have some good weather." The Entergy spokesman notes that, with Vermont's Hydro-Québec contract expiring in 2016 and the ongoing debate over wind-turbine construction polarizing voters, "Vermont should be open to looking at all energy sources."
Robert Dostis (D-Waterbury) is chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and a sponsor of H.520 [read the text of the bill], which would require 25 percent of Vermont's energy to come from renewable sources by 2025. He calls the march "a wonderful opportunity" for citizens to voice their concerns. But he cautions, "There's a lot of work our committee needs to do before we know if we'll support relicensing or not."
Dostis says no legislation before the Natural Resources and Energy committee directly addresses Vermont Yankee. He envisions that over the next two years, legislators will "consider what our options are, what the trade-offs are, where we go to meet our energy, and what resources will be acceptable . . . We need to leave everything on the table."
However, Chris Williams of CAN calls Dostis' approach "a politically safe strategy." Williams estimates that a 20-year license extension for Vermont Yankee would cost Vermont taxpayers at least $200 million - money that could be better spent researching renewable energy options, he insists. "If there's no money, they're not going to happen."