New Documentary Focuses On 'Political Drama' Around Closure Of Vermont Yankee Plant

Nov 3, 2016

It's been nearly two years since the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shut down for the last time. The debate over closing the plant is the subject of a new documentary, Power Struggle, that will be airing on HBO.

Filmmaker Robbie Leppzer spoke with VPR about the film that's been seven years in the making.

On what drew him to the story:

Leppzer, who lives just over the border in western Massachusetts, says he started paying attention to the plant after hearing about the Vermont Legislature's role in the closure process.

"When I heard that the Vermont Legislature was in this very unique position of being the only state legislature in the country to have authority to be able to make a decision about the future operation of a nuclear power plant, that to me suggested that this could be very well be a very engaging political drama," says Leppzer.

On the protesters:

Among those featured in the film is a 93-year-old protester named Francis Crowe. Crowe is part of an affinity group of women over 60 who protested the Vermont Yankee plant by chaining the gates closed.

“Frances Crowe has been a long-time figure in western Massachusetts,” Leppzer says, “and she has actually been fighting to protest the splitting of the atom  — as she says in the film — since 1945, when the U.S. bombed Hiroshima. So she really represents somebody who's been at this for the long haul and definitely stood out for me, as a filmmaker, as a very colorful character to follow.”

Francis Crowe, middle, a 93-year-old from Northampton, Massachusetts, was one of the Vermont Yankee protesters featured in the film.
Credit courtesy 'Power Struggle'

On the proponents of the plant:

“Mike Hebert is a resident of Vernon, where Vermont Yankee is located. And he is a state representative for Vernon and for Guilford next door,” Leppzer says, “and he is somebody who had faith very much in the safety of the plant. And I really felt that his perspective was really important to include because, in fact, the film is actually a mix of perspectives on all sides of this controversy.”

Before it closed, Vermont Yankee was one of the oldest plants in the country.

In the film, nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen explains that old, aging nuclear power plants cost more to run. Gundersen says that it was the public scrutiny in Vermont that really pushed the plant's owner, Entergy, over the edge to the point where they could not longer continue to run the plant without having it be a top-notch facility.

Gundersen estimates in the film that Entergy would have had to spend $250 million to make the necessary improvements, and so instead made the decision to close it.

In this still from the film, Vermont Yankee can be seen at a distance as a herd of cows grazes in the foreground.
Credit courtesy 'Power Struggle'

On the future of nuclear in America:

“I really feel that the underlying major issue here is about nuclear waste,” Leppzer says. “There is no solution for nuclear waste. The scientists keep on saying we will develop this in the future but it has not yet materialized, and until this waste problem can be solved, I think it's very dangerous to be continuing down this path.”

Watch the Power Struggle trailer: