'Power Struggle' documents last years of operation at Vermont Yankee

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BRATTLEBORO >> The closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on Dec. 29, 2014, capped nearly five decades of debate over whether the Vernon facility should even have opened.

But for filmmaker Robbie Leppzer, the end was only the beginning.

A documentarian for four decades, Leppzer first thought of making a movie about Vermont Yankee upon learning its operating license was set for review in 2012. The Massachusetts resident ("I live 18 miles from the plant") went on to photograph 700 hours of government deliberations and grassroots demonstrations, all while lawsuits by supporters and opponents pushed the process into overtime.

Then owners at Entergy Corp. surprised everyone by announcing they were shutting the reactor, spurring Leppzer to edit the equivalent of a month of nonstop footage into a 104-minute feature.

The result, "Power Struggle," will debut Thursday, Nov. 3, at a Brattleboro "sneak preview" featuring Gov. Peter Shumlin before airing next year on HBO.

"This is a story full of drama and conflict and intrigue and big-picture issues," Leppzer says. "And this is a story about Vermont that's going to go national."

The documentary has a cast of thousands, be they plant employees, protesters or all the people who found themselves figuratively or literally stuck in between.

"Obviously with Vermont Yankee as a neighbor, the potential for disaster is very close to us," Vernon farmer Art Miller says in an opening montage picturing the diversity of players. "We recognize that nuclear is a high risk industry, we're not ostriches, we've seen what happened with Chernobyl when that melted down, and certainly recently in Japan with the tsunami. We've chosen to embrace risk owning our own business, a dairy business at that."

The film aims to focus its sprawling story through the eyes of a few representative people. Arnie Gundersen, for example, worked as a nuclear engineer on 70 U.S. plant projects — including Vermont Yankee's fuel racks — before he became an industry whistleblower based in Burlington.

"Einstein said that nuclear power is a hell of way to boil water," Gundersen explains in the film. "What really happens inside a nuclear reactor is that uranium atom pops and in the process gives off an enormous amount of heat. All it does is boil water, make some steam, turns a turbine and a generator and electricity comes out. But what's left behind after you have used that electricity are these pieces. And these pieces stay radioactive for a quarter of a million years."

Shumlin, concerned about such hazards, is shown campaigning against the plant, first as a Windham County state senator and then as governor.

"Whether nuclear power has a place in the future of energy in America, we can debate that until the cows come home," Shumlin says in the film. "What we should not be debating is whether we can extend the life of our aging nuclear power plants beyond their design life."

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Frances Crowe adds her voice as a 97-year-old Northampton, Mass., peace activist who has protested nuclear power since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.

"When people ask me, 'How many times have you been arrested?' I say not enough," Crowe notes in the film. "The system is totally rigged. There's no way even the people working in it can bring about changes. It's flawed, rigged to the core so the only way is for mass civil disobedience. For thousands of people to say no."

Leppzer began filming in the frigid winter of 2010 when he heard anti-nuclear activists planned to walk 126 miles from Brattleboro to the State House in Montpelier. He didn't know plant officials were about to acknowledge a leak of radioactive tritium from underground pipes they earlier swore didn't exist.

"That created a firestorm throughout Vermont, and particularly in the Legislature, and definitely raised concerns of safety and reliability," Leppzer says. "I was filming practically nonstop from that moment forward."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission nonetheless extended the plant's initial 40-year license on March 10, 2011 — a day before an earthquake and tsunami sparked a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, whose reactors are identical to Vermont Yankee's.

The documentary captures the resulting battles in the state capital and federal courts, as well as Entergy surprising everyone Aug. 27, 2013, by announcing it would close the facility at the end of 2014.

"This decision was based on the economics of the plant, not operational performance, not litigation risk, nor political pressure," company spokesman Bill Mohl is shown telling the press at the time. "Simply put, the plant costs exceed the plant revenue and this asset is not financially viable."

But Gundersen believes all the events captured in the film helped lead to that decision.

"Vermont Yankee was going to need about $250 million of repair and replacement over the next two or three years to keep running and Entergy didn't want to spend that money," the whistleblower is quoted. "Entergy knew that Vermonters were not going to allow this plant to operate unless it was in top-notch condition and they couldn't afford it, so 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 10 years."

Leppzer is set to screen the movie Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m. at Brattleboro's Latchis Theatre, with $20 advance tickets and $25 at-the-door admission helping to fund the independent film he single-handedly directed, produced, photographed and edited. More information is available at the website powerstrugglemovie.com.

"This is a story of grass-roots democracy working, and the power of citizens to have a voice," Leppzer says. "I wanted to make a film to show how this process unfolds, but I had no idea when I began what the outcome would be. How many times do people get to go to the big screen and see a local story with national significance?"

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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