Coffin: Yankee Luck

Jan 21, 2015

One sunny morning in 1972, I stood with the man who created Vermont’s only nuclear power plant in its giant, soaring, rounded concrete reactor. The Vermont Yankee nuclear power station was about to fire up. Albert A. Cree was my host, president of Vermont Yankee and Yankee’s parent company, the Central Vermont Public Service Corp. Vermont Yankee was his idea.

As a Rutland Herald reporter, I’d spent many weeks in the late summer and fall of 1971 covering the Yankee plant’s licensing hearings, held in the Brattleboro Union High School gymnasium. There an AEC licensing board, chaired by a humorless Washington lawyer named Samuel Jensch, heard arguments pro and con. The board’s role was an interesting one, since the AEC was both regulator and promoter of nuclear power.

I reported on Yankee’s carefully-crafted insistence on the need for the plant, and the company’s assurances of safety and minor environmental impact. And I wrote on the opponents’ contentions about damage to the Connecticut River, dangers of radioactive waste stores, and the possibility of nuclear accidents, including terrorist attacks.

Each morning Mr. Cree met me at the gymnasium door, brandishing the morning’s Rutland Herald, his hometown paper. I got a polite, firm, critique of my reporting, sometimes critical, sometimes complementary. He was a gentleman, a big, early-elderly, immaculately dressed man who liked bow ties. And daily he tipped his hat to his chief adversary, Esther Poneck, a distinguished Putney lady who was the moving force behind the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution. She always smiled, politely.

As the hearings droned on, Yankee became convinced that reporter Coffin’s daily stories were increasingly biased against the plant. Years later I learned that Yankee’s lead Vermont lawyer, John Carbine, met with Rutland Herald publisher Robert Mitchell to ask that I be removed from covering the hearings. Mitchell showed Carbine the door.

Now more than four decades later, Yankee is shut down. But the plant stands, long to be radioactive. And the spent atomic fuel sits beside the Connecticut, hot and with no permanent home. Not all danger has passed.

But Vermont Yankee’s operating life has ended without a major nuclear incident. I think Vermont has been lucky.