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David vs. Goliath: Documentary film explores closing of Vt. Yankee

  • Protestors call for the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in the film “Power Struggle.” Courtesy of Robbie Leppzer

  • Protestors call for the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in the film “Power Struggle.”

  • Sunday’s fundrasing event will serve, also, as a tribute to longtime Northampton activist France Crowe, 97, seen below in the documentary film. 

  • Protestors call for the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in the film “Power Struggle.” Courtesy of Robbie Leppzer

  • At left, a still from the film “Power Struggle” showcases the uneasy relationship between nuclear power and small-town life in southern Vermont.

  • Opponents of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant say a disaster at the aging facility would affect people within at least a 50-mile radius. Courtesy of Robbie Leppzer

  • Filmmaker Robbie Leppzer has spent about seven years on his most recent documentary, “Power Struggle.”


Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

When Robbie Leppzer set out some seven years ago to film activists opposed to a nuclear power plant in southern Vermont, he didn’t know where it would lead.

But along the way, the Wendell independent filmmaker discovered a rich story — one that examined issues of citizen activism, state versus federal power, and the haunting legacy of atomic waste.

And in “Power Struggle,” his documentary on the long effort to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant south of Brattleboro, Leppzer was able to chronicle the best narrative of all: a genuine David vs. Goliath battle, which David won when the plant was shut down for good in late 2014.

“I think the film touches on some really important themes,” Leppzer said during a recent interview at the Gazette. “There’s public policy, there’s environmental protection, there’s the issue of our energy future.”

Even more important, he says, is the question of whether grassroots democracy, in the form of citizens and local government, can triumph over entrenched, powerful interests like the nuclear energy industry.

Featuring interviews with a host of Vermont Yankee opponents — including the indefatigable Frances Crowe of Northampton — and supporters, as well as Vermont legislators and nuclear experts, “Power Struggle,” produced in conjunction with HBO, will be shown Sunday at the Academy of Music in Northampton. Leppzer, Crowe (who will be honored at the event) and former nuclear engineer turned industry whistleblower Arnie Gundersen — he’s a key source for the film — will speak at the event.

This “sneak preview” screening is part of Leppzer’s effort to raise $200,000 to finish post-production work on the documentary and launch a national distribution campaign; a shorter and modified version of the film has already aired on Japanese television.

The Japanese connection is a crucial one, Leppzer notes, because it was during the battle to shut down Vermont Yankee that a nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, was flooded following a March 2011 tsunami. That led to the plant’s meltdown, considerable radiation contamination in northern Japan and a renewed, worldwide debate about the safety of nuclear power.

In addition to Leppzer’s interviews, “Power Struggle” uses footage from Vermont and national TV broadcasts — and the chilling images of the destruction at Fukushima help remind viewers that the disaster began just a day after the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a plan by Vermont Yankee’s owners, the Entergy Corporation, to extend the 40-year-old plant’s license for another 20 years.

“Who knows how [the Vermont Yankee story] might have ended without Fukushima,” Leppzer said.

Huge concerns

Leppzer, who’s produced numerous films documenting citizen activism, education, and other social issues and progressive causes, began tuning into the Vermont Yankee story in 2009, when company officials announced they would seek a new, 20-year license in 2012 when the plant’s original 40-year license expired.

The plant, in Vernon, Vermont, along the Connecticut River, had a history of safety problems, like a transformer fire and the collapse of a cooling tower; environmentalists, citizen activists and many state officials had huge concerns about the company’s license being extended.

Leppzer began filming in earnest in January 2010 when protestors marched 126 miles from just north of the plant to Montpelier, the Vermont capital, to give state legislators a petition urging the closing of the plant.

“I sensed this could be a powerful story, though I didn’t know where it might go,” he said.

As the film documents, the drama soon began to build. In early 2008, Vermont officials had convened a special oversight panel to examine the plant’s safety record and proposed license extension. The group, chaired by Gundersen (the nuclear engineer-turned whistleblower), discovered Entergy had flat-out lied about not having underground storage pipes at its Vermont facility — pipes that the company was forced to admit had leaked radioactive material into nearby groundwater supplies.

As Leppzer puts it, “All hell broke loose.”

Vermont was fortunate, the film notes, to be the only state in the country with a law that required a nuclear power plant to have a state license as well as a federal one. That gave state officials and activists some leverage as they dug in for an extended battle with Entergy, Vermont Yankee and the NRC. Some of the movie’s most dramatic footage comes from an information session at which activists charge NRC officials with being a rubber stamp for the industry.

Through a story with many twists and turns — a 26-4 vote by the Vermont Senate to close the plant, a federal court battle over that decision, the NRC’s decision to give Vermont Yankee a new license, the Fukushima disaster — Leppzer keeps the film’s focus on the individuals caught up in the drama. “Power Struggle” is also supported by a soundtrack of instrumental guitar music composed by John Sheldon of Amherst.

Frances Crowe, for instance, who now’s 97, talks in the film about putting her elderly body “on the line” at demonstrations against Vermont Yankee.

“I’ve been protesting the splitting of the atom since the Hiroshima bombing in 1945,” she says at one point.

In a recent phone call, Crowe said she was arrested 11 times for trespassing at Vermont Yankee (and fined once, for $450) over the years. To her, the actions were worth it, and she says the film is a testament both to citizen activism and a reminder of the danger of atomic waste, which remains lethal for 250,000 years: “That’s an issue that doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

Flawed design

Gundersen, who today heads an alternative energy consulting group in Burlington, Vermont, offers some of the most poignant testimony. He was an enthusiastic nuclear engineer in the 1970s, helping to design and build dozens of power plants, before being fired, blacklisted and sued by the industry when he reported safety violations at a Connecticut facility he worked at.

“Einstein said nuclear power is a helluva way to boil water,” he says ruefully at one point. On a more serious note, he points out that the Vermont Yankee plant — as well as 22 other U.S. nuclear facilities — has the same flawed design that led the Fukushima plant to explode.

Though it’s clear where Leppzer’s sympathies lie, he also interviews Vermont Yankee employees, neighbors and legislators who say the company had been a good neighbor in Vernon, and that the plant’s closing meant the loss of jobs for several hundred people.

And the film notes that the plant’s closing is something of a Pyrrhic victory even for its opponents. Vermont Yankee’s highly radioactive spent fuel rods — just like those at nuclear plants all around the country — will remain at the plant for the indefinite future, a toxic legacy for which no long-term solution is in sight.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Power Struggle” plays at Northampton’s Academy of Music Sunday at 2 p.m. Guest speakers include filmmaker Robbie Leppzer, activist Frances Crowe and nuclear power expert Arnie Gundersen.

Tickets purchased in advance cost $20 ($25 at the door). To reserve, visit www.aomtheatre.com.

For more information, to see a trailer of the film or to make a donation to complete production of the documentary, visit www.PowerStruggleMovie.com.

“Power Struggle” will also be screened Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro; Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who is featured in the documentary, will speak at the event.