NRC Public Meeting in Brattleboro: The Politics of Intimidation

By Meredith Angwin

A recent public meeting held by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) turned out to be a horrific way for a nuclear supporter to spend an evening. The NRC held the meeting to report its annual review of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s performance. The plant received the highest safety ratings, but that was not the focus of the May 23 meeting in Brattleboro, Vt.—to put it mildly.

I hope I never get that close to a mob-rule situation again. I will be completely honest here. The politics of intimidation at this meeting definitely intimidated me. I have always urged people to “show up at the meeting and stand up for nuclear energy” in my discussions of nuclear activism. I will continue to say and do this, but perhaps more cautiously.

The meeting begins

The NRC meeting was divided into two parts. The first session in some ways resembled a “science fair.” Attendees could see NRC exhibits and ask questions one-on-one with NRC officials. Vermont Yankee also provided an exhibit, a cut-away model of the plant. This part of the meeting was completely civil. You can see people standing by an NRC table, and standing around and chatting, in this picture:

Near the end of this first session, however, a group of women in black, with white death masks, filed into the room and began walking a circuit around it.

As the NRC attempted to set up tables for the second session, intended to be a more formal meeting with a question-and-answer period, many of the black-dressed women went to the front of the room and stood behind the NRC tables. The NRC moderator asked them to sit down. He said that he wouldn’t start the meeting with them standing there, and that standing behind the tables was disrespectful. (You can see the interaction at WCAX “Vermont Yankee hearing turns heated.”)

The crowd shouted that those were merely the NRC rules, that this is a democracy, that the women don’t have to sit down. Then most of the crowd surged up from their seats to stand near the women.

At this point, at the front of the room, the NRC regulators were now surrounded by a hostile crowd. The police and the NRC decided that the NRC officials should leave the room for their own safety. This picture shows the NRC officials leaving (at right) while the front of the room is filled with protesters.

I hope to leave

With the NRC gone from the room, the opponent group had taken over the microphones and were saying anything they wanted and clapping for each other. This was an anti-nuclear rally, with a meeting room thoughtfully provided by the NRC.

I realized I had no earthly reason to be in that room. Maybe it was time for me to leave too. While the NRC was out in the hallway, I became hopeful that the meeting would be cancelled and I could leave.

Alas, the NRC came back in to the meeting. The NRC ceded the front of the room to the opponent crowd. Chris Miller, NRC Region 1 director of the Division of Reactor Safety, answered questions from the side of the room. Karl Farrar, NRC Region 1 regional counsel, called on people to ask questions from the aisle at the center of the room.

Same old, same old

The anti-nuclear crowd was noisy and intimidating. At random-seeming intervals, they started chants. One of the leaders would shout “Mike Check” and the group would echo it. Then the leader would shout a few more lines about the plant, or “This is what democracy looks like!” and the group would echo that. The audience also shouted, whistled, and rang bells to show approval for one of their speakers, or disapproval for an NRC official, or for the sole brave pro-nuclear speaker.

The questions and statements of the opponents were the usual. NRC is an industry lapdog, there is strontium in the fish, etc. The final query was what could the people at the meeting say that would get the NRC to shut down the plant. Karl Farrar answered, “That’s not the way the system works.” With that response, the anti-nuclear leaders declared that “the people” were leaving. There was a final burst of chanting, and most of the audience walked out.

Was it worth it to attend?

Yes and no. During the “science fair” session of the meeting, I had a friendly talk with Mike Mulligan, a Vermont Yankee opponent. Mulligan frequently comments on my blog Yes Vermont Yankee. Howard Shaffer also spoke with several plant opponents at that time. I saw several pro-nuclear people whom I like a lot (but they left early—and I do not blame them!). I was interviewed by a local TV station (it’s in the video clip above) and also a radio station. So for those reasons, it was worthwhile to attend.

I have been to many meetings dominated by nuclear energy opponents, but in general the meetings have been civil enough that I felt my presence counted for something. My feeling about this meeting is different. My presence at the formal meeting did not count, and I had no chance to stand up and speak during the entire meeting. A Keene Sentinel article said this about the one man who did speak up:

One man spoke in favor of the plant, but was shouted down by other audience members.

Go to meetings anyway

I still encourage people to go to public meetings and show support for nuclear energy. Most public meetings are not like this one, thankfully. On the other hand, after this meeting, I would also suggest that you keep your eyes open. “Bail out” if you think things might get ugly. Many of my friends left early. There’s no shame in deciding to get out.

I put a link to the WCAX video on the Save Vermont Yankee Facebook page. Here’s what one man wrote in response. I think I will end this post with his words:

It’s strange I did not see anyone arrested in the video. It’s almost at the level of a lynch mob, which is where this type of activity appears to be escalating. You should be careful around mobs like this. They can be very dangerous and things could get ugly quickly.

____________________

Angwin

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents.

Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

19 Responses to NRC Public Meeting in Brattleboro: The Politics of Intimidation

  1. Joe carson

    Unfortunately, I can understand too well why the “anti’s” acted out. When I respectfully voice my concerns about the safety of nuclear power and the professional ethics of nuclear safety professionals vis-a-vis the ANS code of ethics, I get one excuse after another for how important it is (for the salaries of nuclear professionals) that nothing happen.

    Nuclear professionals are not, in my professional opinion, adequately trustworthy, at least collectively, for the public to trust them, whether they work in utilities, NRC or elsewhere. I would appreciate an opportunity to have a open and civil disputation on that point. Nuclear professionals, like it or not, have to adhere to a higher standard of professionalism, ethics and public civics than “the mob,” who become the “mob” because they feel disrespected and unempowered.

  2. A new disruption tactic just means that there must be a new control tactic to counter it. The next meeting will presumably see more security and better control of the physical space of the meeting.

    Meanwhile these tactics are a clear indication that the antis have no rational arguments worthy of the name. All they have left is party games. This is no great reassurance when the media reports on this kind of anti-democratic action as if it is an argument in itself.

  3. Joe: I suggest you rethink your position on a portion of the anti-nuclear community. Read Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”. This incident is right out of the book. Robert’s rules were designed to let the majority act while protecting the rights of the minority. Obviously, the NRC did not follow those rules. My experience in New England with the “Alliances” in the 1970′s and 80′s were physical threats and tires slashed.
    It is the responsibility of the leadership of meetings not to enable bad behavior.
    I think your trustworthy generalization does a dis-service to me and other nuclear engineers and professionals.
    As an aside I spent over a year working as a paid professional with the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution in Brattleboro, Vermont in the 1970′s. Most of those anti-nuclear, anti -energy types questioned, both the technology and the systems; but used and followed the rules of order.

  4. Charles Bell

    Hey Meredith. Good morning to you.

    Wow, I’ve been quoted. I am so humbled, but I meant what I said. A mob like that can quickly go over the edge. Some may have been carrying weapons. I hope they do screen people for that. You were seeing how people really behave when they don’t get their way. It is the way of bullies.

  5. Actually, this sort of mob-rule Meridith experienced, not to oddly, got its start 2 years ago when right-wing T-Party types used the *exact* same tactics to disrupt the meetings of their congressional representatives reporting on Obama’s health plan. Free speech went out the window and opponents were often booed to shut up or, in some cases, physically threatened. In either situation, actual civil discourse is not going to happen.

    Ergo, one of the *many* “PR” problems of the pro-nuclear side is the need to organize “in kind” and assertively. Meridith, you actually did this very thing once earlier this year or late last year when VY employees, many of them union folks at that, organized a rally in support of the plant. Think about the *same folks* showing up, en masse, determined to be heard, determined not to be interrupted, determined to defend their right to defend not only their lively hood, but the only form of baseload energy that can seriously be used to phase out fossil fuels?

    Yours for mass-action,

    David Walters
    IBEW 1245 (ret)

  6. Thank you for all the comments.

    Joe: I have no idea how to answer the statement that nuclear professionals are not trustworthy. My own experience has been that nuclear professionals adhere to a very high code of ethics. I cannot say the same for some of the opponents whom I have debated. However, this is an argument that neither of us can win. You think that nuclear professionals can’t be trusted, and you feel that justifies the actions at the meeting. I disagree on both issues. We will have to leave it at that, I think.

    Joffan. You are right. They are out of arguments and resorting to shouting and intimidation. Also, as Howard pointed out, there were fewer people at this NRC meeting than at meetings in previous years. The opponents are running out of steam IMO.

    Charles: A pleasure to quote you! Yes, the police checked our purses and briefcases for weapons, on the way in to the meeting. And probably, they also checked for manure. (Manure was thrown at an earlier NRC meeting…see my Yes VY blog post today for a link.) However, the check was pretty perfunctory and when a mob is acting like a mob, it is scary. That’s why the police walked between the NRC people and the opponent group while the NRC people left the room.

    David. Yes, we organized three rallies, as a matter of fact! One with signs, before the courthouse on the streets of Brattleboro, at the same time as an opponent “vigil.” They wore black, we wore white t-shirts with “Yes Nuclear Power” on them! We organized two more rallies on the grounds of the plant..last fall during the refueling, and this spring near the time of the license renewal date. In all these rallies, we avoided confrontation and did not interfere with whatever the opponents were doing.

    The tactics at this NRC meeting were the same-old. They were the same as other disruptive tactics. I have no doubt that other groups have used them for other reasons, on both sides of the political spectrum. However, at this meeting, the disruption was very one-sided, and I think the opponents would agree to that. As a matter of fact, some of them would boast of it.

  7. As a pro-nuke reason. I would suggest ANS and its representatives take the ‘high road’ sponsor talks, seminar, and kite flying nuclear science fair invite for kids & parents. After all it’s not about confrontation it’s about education to promote science-not-rumor.
    It really a waste of time trying to convince adults that have for years subscribed to anti-human eugenics Malthusian over-population POLITICA dynamics. Most adhere to debate by casting false science in climate warming, carbon tax, nuclear fear mongering in the effort to cull and control human population through bad economics which says, humans are a blight on the earth propaganda.
    Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin
    see video>>>
    http://youtu.be/ei6jbrcX8ao

  8. Rita Fairman

    It scares me when mob rules. I recall history when the Nazis and the Tea Party (among others) used these tactics to eliminate debate. I have been pro-nuke ever since I first studied it. The problem seems to me that so many people recall only what they have listened to of the “horror stories” fed by the media. They are afraid of nuclear, they don’t understand it, and they are not given the right messages to be able to make a logical, not merely emotional conclusion. (…. and they don’t seem to realize that Big Coal, Big Oil and Gas are seeing to it that they are being fed these stories.

  9. Bruce, ANS does have active educational outreach activities at the national and local levels, including student sections as well as local sections. ANS sponsors teachers workshops; participates in science festivals; sponsors events ranging from National Nuclear Science Week to National Engineers Week; hosts junior girl scout nuclear science patch workshop and boy scout nuclear science merit badge workshops; runs an active volunteer speakers bureau; sponsors congressional staff seminars on fundamental nuclear science topics; routinely publishes K-12 resource materials both in the ReActions newsletter and on this blogsite; maintains an active scholarship program; and regularly provides resource materials for a variety of audiences through the ANS Public Information Committee and the Outreach program — actually, I’m pretty amazed at how much ANS members contribute in terms of educational outreach resources & events!

    Sometimes, though, you also need to challenge assumptions, especially when those assumptions are based on fundamental falsehoods.

  10. James Greenidge

    I read you, lscheele; ANS (and I presume NEI and others) are promoting good grass-roots programs, but there are times where you must go aggressive and over the grass to prevent all your good labor to be snowed under fresh FUD. Nuclear power BADLY needs an emergency media truth response squad (a combo ANS-NEI-Nuke-Blog effort?) at the ready to jump on — via media consultation or YouTube ed featured — correcting and putting in perspective any nuclear issue report or incident that anti-nukers will pounce and warp for their own gain. Immediately to mind is this radioactive tuna story; I wager anti-nukes have instantly gained several tens of thousand of believers just because of that report — with no small reinforcement or
    “education” by the media. It’d be great if we saw this story on radar and knocked the doors of the media to offer provide analysis and perspective than their tapping their usual anti-nuke “consultants.” Yes, I know the media has it in for nuclear energy and we have to hammer their door while anti’s get welcome mats, but if such a combo truth squad presented itself under the strength of its organizational members and merits they’d be hard put to ignore us. Else I’d hate to think that the media places far far more credence and respect in Arnie than say, the combined weight and talents of ANS-NEI, to being used as an on-the-fly media consultant on situations as this. If I’d the funds or won the lottery I’d do a Jim Phelps and round up such a banner instant PSA truth response team from pro-nuke blog honchos myself, but my name means squat to the media to get their attention, and the nuclear industry and atomic unions seem inept to take the initiative to save their own skins from antis shutting them down, so all I can really do is b__ here in foolishly anti-nuke Queens and watch the tube as anti-nuke media darlings are given another stage to spout what giant eggshells nuclear reactors are and how evil nuclear energy and everyone who believes in it are. Speak of the devil, just like right now at local NYC TV reporters visiting people at supermarket sea food counters and Hunts Point market to warn them about glowing fish from baddie nukes.

    Where’s that red phone to the nuke truth squad when you need it??

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY
    Land of besieged Indian Point

  11. James, I was responding to Bruce’s inquiry about educational outreach — not weighing one communications need over another.

    ANS members decide how resources are allocated for ANS outreach and all ANS programs. This blog represents a lot of volunteer effort by individual members, most of whom hold one or more demanding ‘day jobs’, and should not be so easily dismissed as an outlet to combat misinformation. As always, you and other interested parties can join ANS — http://www.new.ans.org/join/ — contribute to efforts like the ones you describe and be part of the discussion on resource allocation.

    And yes – I hope you win the lottery!

  12. A CLASSIC example of: “If you have a case, then pound the case. If you DON’T have a case, then pound the table.” Too much table ounding here, I fear. Sad.

  13. No doubt ANS does have a good outreach program. And short of getting ‘Jim Neutron’ to grow-up in Hollywood years. I will never forget ’28 Days Later’ the 2002 British horror film directed by Danny Boyle.
    In particular the grocery store scene when all seemed lost and the un-infected people might starve to death from lack of food or die at the hands of virus infected zombies.
    (One of the few films showing nuclear science in a positive light.)

    The Grocery Store scene:
    Selena: It started as rioting.
    But right from the beginning you knew this was different. Because it was happening in small villages, market towns. And then it wasn’t on the TV any more. It was in the street outside. It was coming in through your windows. It was a virus. An infection. You didn’t need a doctor to tell you that. It was the blood. It was something in the blood. By the time they tried to evacuate the cities it was already too late. Army blockades were overrun. And that’s when the exodus started. Before the TV and radio stopped broadcasting there were reports of infection in Paris and New York. We didn’t hear anything more after that.
    ————————————–
    Frank: [to a crow eating a dead body] Get out of it.
    [stands]
    Frank: Get out of it!
    [kicks fence]
    —————————————
    Selena: [the gang enters an abandoned grocery store] Let’s shop.
    ————————————
    Jim: Please…
    Corporal Mitchell: Believe me, I’m not interested.
    ————————————
    [first lines]
    Activist: Bingo.
    ———————————
    [last lines]
    Selena: Do you think he saw us this time?
    ———————————–
    [finding a crate of fresh apples in a pile of rotting produce]
    Frank: Mmmmmm… Irradiated!
    ————————————–
    Hannah: [to Major West] I don’t want to eat. I want to bury my dad. He’s one of the people

  14. Bill Eaton

    I’m afraid bad manners always trumps politeness and restraint. Plus, NRC is typically afraid to exercise its authority in circumstances like that referenced for fear of appearing pro-nuclear. Add those factors and you get poor outcomes. The NRC could do itself, and us, a favor if it canceled or truncated any such meeting upon disrespectful behavior.
    Ironically, good power contracts in the northeast and VY’s money making potential are keeping Entergy involved in a miserable management environment, with unnecessary costs to fight the local politics.
    I wish the anti’s would receive a power bill from Entergy that had two figures on the bill. One the actual amount owed, and a second number that reflected the higher cost of some reasonably based mix of alternative sources or spot market pricing. Maybe the anti’s need some reality mixed in with their political action kool-aid.
    On the other hand, recognition and consideration of facts is typically not the strong suit of the NIMBY’s.

  15. Bill Eaton

    I’d like to respectfully dispute Joe’s contention that nuclear professionals of any stripe are untrustworthy. I really don’t know where to start except to say that my experience in energy spans non-nuclear electrical generation and transmission, small town utility management, energy systems design and consulting, as well as 25 years in nuclear utility management, engineering and operations imbedded within a 40 year career, being now still involved in independent nuclear safety review boards. My experience has shown me that nuclear types have higher levels of accountability, better training, and more rigorous process restraints (checks and balances) than most of the others supplying our vital energy needs. As to trustworthiness, I see no real differences in the moral or ethical foundation of behaviors between nuclear and non-nuclear types. And finally, Joe, people don’t turn into mobs because they feel disrespected or unempowered. They turn to mob rule because it offers them something they can’t actually accomplish in civil discourse and normal behavior. Fear and dampening of contrary opinion is the product of mob rule, not empowerment and respect. Do you really think the anti-nuke mob gained the respect of anyone at that meeting?

  16. I can easily imagine the same type of people, in a location not too far from there, 300 years ago, in a similar public gathering, shouting at some eccentric woman, “Burn her! Burn the witch!”

  17. Brian Mays

    And, “She turned me into a newt!”

    That’s about as rational as the claims made by these groups.

  18. Great job on this blog.

  19. Thank you all for your comments.

    Mob rule sounds like a spontaneous uprising. In reality, though, someone rules the mob. When this meeting was first reported in the local press, it was written as “meeting gets out of hand.” On my own blog, Yes Vermont Yankee, I felt I had to say that the opponent activities were probably planned. One of my blog posts is “Planned Disruption at NRC Meeting.”

    A recent Commons (Brattleboro) article describes the meeting very well: “Calling the meeting to disorder. ”
    http://www.commonsnews.org/site/site05/story.php?articleno=5484&page=1

    A quote from that article

    Activist Leslie Sullivan Sachs took her turn at the microphone. She called, “Mic check.”
    The audience echoed as Sullivan Sachs told the NRC that “With all due respect to our fellow citizens whose careful testimony will fall upon the NRC’s deaf ears, the people are walking out.”
    In a previous interview, Sullivan Sachs said that protesters planned a walkout. For 40 years, citizens had played by the rules, attending meetings and giving input, she said. But for 40 years, she added, the NRC has not listened.

    This disruption was intended and planned and carried out. Intimidation was intended and successful. Most people in the audience did not get an opportunity to talk, Some of the opponents may be very proud of themselves about that.

    In fairness, though, the opponents are not a monolithic group–some opponents were also upset at not being able to speak. In other words, mob rule is the opposite of freedom and democracy.