Film Details Grassroots Effort To Close Vermont Yankee Power Plant

By: Tim Wood

Filmmaker Robbie Leppzer. COURTESY PHOTO

The battle to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, as detailed in the documentary “Power Struggle,” has a lot of parallels with the effort to close the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth. But the Pilgrim story has significant differences, noted filmmaker Robbie Leppzer.

Whereas the voices of citizens and the Vermont legislature played a major role in the closure of Vermont Yankee – although Entergy, the company that owns that plant and Pilgrim, claimed the decision was economic – in Southeastern Massachusetts, activists and legislators have been largely ignored, Leppzer said. Entergy has announced it will close the plant by 2019 because it can't afford to make the minimum upgrades needed to maintain even its low level of plant safety.

“And you can't cut corners when you're running a nuclear power plant,” said Leppzer, who will show a clip from “The Nuclear Gamble,” a documentary he is currently shooting about the Pilgrim plant.

“Power Struggle,” which made its debut earlier this year at the Provincetown Film Festival, will be shown at the Chatham Orpheum Theater Saturday at 9 a.m. Leppzer will lead a post-screening discussion that will include, among others, Diane Turco, founder and director of Cape Downwinders, members of which have been arrested numerous times and have protested vehemently against the Pilgrim plant.

The film tells the story of grassroots activists in Vermont who spent years trying to close the Yankee plant. Leppzer, an independent documentary filmmaker who lives 18 miles from the plant in Wendell, Mass., focuses the story on three key players: Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive turned watchdog for the Vermont legislature; 93-year-old Frances Crowe who has been protesting against the dangers of the nuclear industry since 1945; and Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who wields the power of the legislature, the only one in the country with licensing power over a nuclear plant, to push for the closure of Yankee. He also interviewed local residents who worked at the plant, which employed 650 people and paid 48 percent of the property taxes in the town of Vernon, on the banks of the Connecticut River.

“It was important for the film to be a mix of different voices, different perspectives, and different players who had a role in this political drama,” Leppzer said.

“The Vermont and Massachusetts activists are outstanding models and true heroes for upholding democratic values and our right to safety,” Turco said. “'Power Struggle' also reflects the work and action Cape Downwinders has employed – political pressure, education, protests, and civil disobedience – to protect our communities from the clear and present danger Pilgrim presents.”

Leppzer had an early introduction to the nuclear power industry; at 18, while a student at Hampshire College, he made a documentary about the controversy surrounding the Seabrook nuclear power plant. He put together radio program of interviews following the Three-Mile Island meltdown a few years later. With Vermont Yankee so close to his home, “it was always on my radar,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

He began filming in 2010 when he heard that anti-nuclear protesters were walking from Brattleboro to the capital at Montpelier, a 126-mile trek, in the middle of the winter.

“I thought, wow, that shows commitment,” he said.

Leppzer spent five years chronicling the efforts of the Vermont legislature and citizen activists as they took various tacks to force the closure of the plant. In the film, Gundersen details how plant officials were caught lying after they said there were no underground pipes at the facility, only to later report that some had leaked radioactive material into the groundwater. That caused a “political firestorm,” Leppzer said. “Basically from that moment on I was filming nonstop.”

Before he was governor, Shumlin was president of the state senate and led efforts to deny Entergy's effort to extend Yankee's 40-year license. That vote led the company to sue the state, which lost the federal court battle over the permit.

A telling scene in the film shows activists confronting representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a hearing on the license extension. They admit they knew the plant had underground piping but do not reply when asked why they didn't speak up with Entergy officials lied about the fact.

Not long after Leppzer began filming, nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, melted down following a major earthquake. Both the Yankee and Pilgrim plants are the exact same GE light water boiling water reactors as Fukushima.

The failure of the Fukushima reactors was only indirectly caused by the earthquake and tsunami, Gundersen says in the film. The loss of power and failure of cooling pumps led to the disaster.

“We don't need a tsunami, we don't need an earthquake, to cause that kind of damage in an American plant,” he says.

Everyone expected the court battle over Yankee's license to drag on for years and the plant to continue to operate in the meantime, despite a safety record almost as poor as Pilgrim's. But in 2013 Entergy announced it was closing the plant, and although economics were cited as the main reason, Leppzer said it's clear to him it was the pressure from activists and legislators that pushed the company into the decision.

Leppzer said the film is about the power of a grassroots movements to effect change, as well as a warning about the ongoing threat that nuclear power plants pose. Even closed plants will remain essentially nuclear waste dumps, since there is no central storage facility, and while the waste will remain dangerous for 250,000 years, the casks in which it is stored are only licensed for 30 years.

“This is just a temporary solution. And there really isn't a solution beyond that at this point,” he said.

Leppzer has largely completed filming of “The Nuclear Gamble,” and is raising money for post production through an online funding campaign. He said he's camped in Truro for many years so the threat that Pilgrim poses to the Cape makes it a “very personal” story.

Along with Leppzer and Turco, the discussion after Saturday's showing will include Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network; Maureen Burgess of the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission; and Dr. Brian O'Malley, a member of the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates.

Tickets to “Power Struggle” are $12 and available online at See a trailer for the film at