No one can give activism a bad name like activists. Especially anti-nuclear activists.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, anti-nuclear activists took up the twin causes of banning nuclear bombs and banning nuclear power plants, conflating the two in the public imagination by demonizing the word “nuclear.” The ultimate triumph — if it can be called that — of the anti-nuclear movement was the creation of the Green Party in Germany in the early 1980s, which was founded as much on paranoia about nuclear power as it was on a reflexive Cold War-era anti-Americanism (and let’s not open that can of worms).
The Green Party has long since matured, as all radical parties do in order to survive, and now is part of the governing coalition in Germany that insists that NATO must remain a nuclear alliance. But I digress.
I admire consistency in politics, as much as consistency is ever possible, and while I disagree with people who fear nuclear power, I can understand their blanket objections to the inherently dangerous business of splitting atoms for any reason, peaceful or otherwise.
Personally, I would rather split atoms and boil water than burn hydrocarbons and inhale the resulting carcinogens, but okay, that’s an argument for another day. But I will grant that the people who argue for leaving Uranium-235 the hell alone in all circumstances are at least consistent, if (in my view) technologically unschooled and politically wrong-headed.
Political wrong-headedness brings me to my real subject here, which is the state of Vermont.
I lived in Vermont for many years in the 1990s, and I’ll even confess I voted once for Howard Dean as governor there. (He was running as a reasonable, level-headed physician against a complete gun-nut kook whose name I can’t remember. The Howard we knew then in Vermont was not the “Yeeeeeaaaahhhhhh” Howard of today.)
Vermont is a strange place, and not for the reasons you’d think. (Insert your own “more cows than people” joke here, but that’s actually not true.) Rural areas are, to me, always a little oddball if only because they’re disconnected from the rest of the world, and so things that most of us wouldn’t get too over-excited about, like three feet of fence line, can turn into huge deals that will keep generations of families from speaking to each other.
In small towns, all politics is retail; that is, the residents fully expect to know their political representatives on a first-name basis. At one point, when I was teaching at Dartmouth College (just across the river from Vermont), I could swear I met everyone in politics in Northern New England, but since I only knew them as “Peter,” “Charlie,” “Dave,” etc., maybe they were just the only people in the area wearing ties and oxfords. My next door neighbor for a brief time there was Madeleine Kunin, the former governor of Vermont. (She was a lovely person and nice neighbor.)
This makes Vermont kind of unusual because politically, it’s not really a “rural” state. It’s not actually run by guys in bib overalls writing legislation in between milking old Bessie, nor is it the sort of Jethro refuge people think it is from watching old reruns of Newhart. Larry, Darryl, and Darryl aren’t really all that big a part of the population.
(By the way, there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, funny about them once you meet their real-life equivalents while gassing up on a remote stretch of I-91 in the middle of the night. Just take my word on this one.)
Instead, big swaths of Vermont are actually just spread out urban retirement communities, with powerful groups of educated and wealthy Baby Boomers — the “BoBos,” or “Bourgeois Bohemians,” as David Brooks called them — many of whom are expats from other states who made their fortunes elsewhere, and then settled in Vermont to make the state a kind of experiment in progressive politics. Some of these folks are even former hippies; amazingly, they discovered in late middle age that wealth doesn’t suck.
Vermont does have working-class enclaves, composed of the last generations of people whose parents and grandparents worked the mills and forestry industries, and of course there are farms (although not as many as you’d think). There is grinding poverty, especially in the far northern reaches, but clever zoning laws and careful management of property values make sure that the rich and the poor generally don’t have to encounter each other.
On average, Vermonters are more educated than most Americans, and have the same per capita income — which seems unremarkable until you realize that it’s a sparsely populated state of only some 600,000 people. Like most places with a lot of rich people and a relatively smaller number of poor people, public services (like schools) vary, depending on where one happens to live.
This creates some odd politics, because Vermont is the kind of place where a vote for progressivism — like the occasional vote for secession — doesn’t seem to hurt anyone (unless you’re trying to take money from rich school districts, which in the 1990s brought out the Inner Donald Trump in a lot of people there, but again, I digress.)
It’s the kind of place where people fight the arrival of Wal-Mart superstores not only because they think Sam Walton’s monster is a threat to Mom and Pop businesses, but because they think they’re ugly and gauche. The fact that the poor of Vermont have to cross the river or the mountains to work and shop in New Hampshire or New York or Massachusetts doesn’t matter, so long as the state’s innate preciousness is preserved.
And so it is with nuclear energy: Vermonters, it seems, don’t want nuclear energy messing up their pretty state. The state’s more enlightened voters are certain that the word “nuclear” is bad, and they want nothing to do with it.
Last week, as The Boston Globe reported:
More than 1,000 people turned out…on the Brattleboro town green for a rally to show support for decommissioning the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, one of the oldest nuclear power plants in the country.
The event included speeches by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Peter Shumlin, both of whom are calling for the state’s wishes to be honored and for the 40-year-old Vernon reactor to be shut down.
“(Let’s) say to the aging nuclear power industry,” Shumlin said, “shut them down, go home, tell the truth, we’re moving on, we’re moving out , you go first, we’re not going to rest until you’re gone.”
But of course, even Vermont needs energy; there aren’t enough windmills, enough waterfalls, enough hamsters in enough treadmills, or other forms of energy to power everything from the state’s fine public university in Burlington to the Quechee glass blowing works (which is a cool store in a gorgeous town, and you should visit if you’re touring up that way), so the electricity has to come from somewhere.
Turns out, some of it will come from New Hampshire. From a nuclear plant.
Apparently, nuclear energy isn’t so bad if someone else is making it. The administration in Montpelier almost a year ago trumpeted a deal with the Seabrook nuclear facility, as Vermont’s WPTZ-TV reported in May 2011:
Green Mountain Power announced Tuesday it has reached a new, long-term power agreement with NextEra Energy to purchase power from the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire. The agreement appears a further setback for owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, which is fighting the state to stay open beyond next year. and from which GMP now buys 40 percent of its electricity.
James Moore, a spokesman for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said he was “disappointed” GMP would continue any reliance on “dirty and unreliable” nuclear energy.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat sharply critical of Vermont Yankee in recent years, applauded the Seabrook deal.
“We’re trying to create jobs and economic opportunities,” Shumlin said, “and cheap power makes a real difference.”
Cheap power does indeed make a difference, although you lose some of the benefit if you have to buy it next door. As one Vermont Republican state senator said: “We will still be buying nuclear power – we just won’t have the jobs and revenue.”
Personally, I lived down river from Vermont Yankee and never gave it a thought. And since I don’t live in Vermont anymore, I don’t really care where Vermont buys its power. But it says something about the level of debate about nuclear issues when “nuclear power” in Vermont gets the villager-and-pitchfork treatment, while the same nuclear power supplied from New Hampshire gets a golf-clap.
Either you like nuclear power, or you don’t. People who insist that that it’s only acceptable when it’s made next door are not standing on principle, they’re standing on fashion.
Of course, reflexive anti-nuclear hysteria nearly stopped the completion of Seabrook thirty years ago, raising the question of where today’s Vermonters would be buying their power if yesterday’s college students had succeeded in their sit-ins.
Today, we live in an age of $5 per gallon gas, where a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican ran against each other in 2008 and disagreed about almost everything except the need to build more nuclear plants.
Irony is dead.