Film details citizen effort to close VY

 

BRATTLEBORO — Robbie Leppzer has perfect timing. And the worst.

The documentary filmmaker heard in January 2010 that a group of activists were going to walk from Brattleboro to Montpelier — in the winter — to protest the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.

Leppzer, 58, of Wendell, Massachusetts, already had a film and public radio production to his credit about nuclear power, and he was intrigued about the dedication of people who would make such a 126-mile walk in the dead of winter.

“I thought I’d film it and put it on a shelf until I had time to do something with it,” Leppzer said Monday.

But the nuclear story blew up, figuratively, half way to Montpelier. And Leppzer’s feature-length documentary, “Power Struggle” a seven-year effort, will screen Thursday in Brattleboro at the Latchis Theater.

Just as the group of anti-nuclear activists was halfway through its snowy trek came the news from Entergy Nuclear that Vermont Yankee was leaking high levels of radioactive tritium from an unknown source — and the tritium was showing up in monitoring wells on the banks of the Connecticut River.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, one of Yankee’s biggest critics, who was interviewed for the movie, will be on hand at the screening. Leppzer sold the television rights for “Power Struggle” to HBO and the film is slated to be broadcast sometime next year.

Leppzer hopes to raise $200,000 needed to complete the last technical work on the film — sound mix and color correction — as well as pay for a national tour promoting the film. Funding so far has come from Leppzer, HBO and NHK-Japan. Leppzer had earlier finished a shorter version of “Power Struggle” for the Japanese broadcast company.

“It’s been mostly a labor of love,” Leppzer said. “It’s been underfunded for sure.”

His earlier work included a film made while he was a student at Hampshire College about the massive demonstrations at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station on New Hampshire’s seacoast, and the other was a Public Radio broadcast of a series of interviews of people living around the Three Mile Island nuclear plant; those interviews were later made into a book.

The activists arrived at the Vermont State House just as news that the tritium leak — thousands of times higher than allowable limits — came from leaking underground pipes, pipes that Entergy Nuclear officials had testified to state officials did not exist at Yankee.

It was months before the leak’s source was discovered and brought under control, but by that time the Vermont Senate had voted in February 2010 overwhelmingly, 26-4, against the continued operation of Vermont Yankee.

Entergy fought back to keep the Vernon reactor — and its 650 jobs, and won the ultimate victory in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, only to decide a few weeks later to pull the plug on Yankee’s continued operation.

The culprit? Not the state of Vermont and its activists, but the low price of natural gas, Entergy officials said.

Leppzer has several people tell the story. Front and center is nuclear industry whistleblower Arnie Gundersen of Burlington, whose personal and professional life became intertwined with Vermont Yankee. He talks to 97-year-old activist Frances Crowe of Northampton, Massachusetts, and then-Entergy Nuclear spokesman Larry Smith, as well as Shumlin and legislative leaders, including Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, Sen. Harold Giard, D-Addison and Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon.

He records demonstrations, committee hearings, press conferences and personal stories, archival footage of the building of Yankee, and the infamous photo of Yankee’s partially-collapsed cooling tower.

In 2011, came the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster, and Leppzer’s film about grass-roots democracy and nuclear power became of intense interest to NHK-Japan, the Japanese national public broadcasting network.

The Japanese broadcast company was fascinated by the Vermont grass-roots democracy story — that citizens could and did directly lobby their legislators about their concerns about the aging Vermont Yankee plant, Leppzer said.

Ironically, a day before the Fukushima disaster, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission had granted Entergy permission to operate Yankee for another 20 years.

A year later, on the day Yankee’s original 40-year license expired in 2011, thousands of people demonstrated in Brattleboro, but the plant kept operating, a major setback for the state and the thousands of activists who had worked for decades to shut down the Vernon reactor.

Despite the closely watched court decision, within weeks, Entergy itself pulled the plug on Yankee.

“Entergy provided me with the perfect ending,” Leppzer said, only half joking. On Aug. 28, 2013, Entergy announced that it would be shutting Vermont Yankee down permanently at the end of 2014, when its nuclear fuel ran out.

Gundersen remains convinced that it was public pressure, and the demand for transparency and maintenance at Yankee, as well as the price of natural gas, that was behind Entergy’s decision.

“It was a victory for grassroots democracy and citizens being involved,” Leppzer said. “A political drama unfolds before your eyes.”

The movie will be shown at 7 p.m. at the Latchis Theater. Admission is free for high school students, and Leppzer is asking for $20 advance general admission, with $10 for college students, but he said no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

The fundraiser, which follows a similar fundraiser two weeks ago in Northampton, Massachusetts, on Thursday will include a panel discussion with people interviewed in the film.

For information on tickets for the fundraiser and to watch a trailer for the film, see www.powerstrugglemovie.com.

susan.smallheer @rutlandherald.com

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