This year VPIRG is celebrating its 50th anniversary. All year long we’ll be sharing special messages like this—from VPIRG staff, board, and members, past and present—reflecting on some of the major victories this incredible community has achieved together over the past five decades.
Drew Hudson here. I served as VPIRG’s Field Director from 2003 to 2008, a period that included a lot of our work to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant – a critical victory that VPIRG spent decades fighting for and remains one of our proudest accomplishments.
It’s fair to say that anti-nuclear advocacy is baked into VPIRG’s DNA, and the push to retire Vermont Yankee was an effort that generations of VPIRGers worked on.
Vermont Yankee began operations in 1972, the same year that VPIRG was founded on the campus of the University of Vermont. Even then, as a new and scrappy student group, the VPIRG team pushed back against the use of nuclear power and the proposed storage of nuclear waste in Vermont, and some of VPIRG’s early leaders were arrested in anti-nuke protests around New England.
VPIRG’s campaign to close Vermont Yankee kicked into high gear in 2007, coinciding with the infamous partial collapse of a cooling tower that clearly illustrated the inadequate equipment upkeep, failure to fix known problems, poor management, and weak inspections that plagued VY and posed a significant threat to Vermont’s people and environment.
This dramatic event alone was not enough to spur significant action, but with Vermont Yankee’s operating permit scheduled to expire on March 21, 2012 (10 years ago this week!) VPIRG was committed to putting in the work, no matter how long it took, to prevent permit renewal and retire VY as planned.
Although I’m proud of all the work we did to close Vermont Yankee — including research we did to demonstrate the dangers posed by Vermont Yankee, reports we wrote on the environmental and economic opportunities presented by closing it, and polls and public surveys we conducted to show Vermont was ready to transition to clean, safe, reliable energy for all – I’m even more proud of the incredible movement that the VPIRG community built.
We ran summer canvasses mobilizing grassroots support for retiring Vermont Yankee, conducted grassroots education and organizing events all over the state, and organized public lobby days at the State House. I remember one year distinctly when a Valentine\’s Day blizzard all but snowed-out our lobby day. We thought nobody would attend in a blizzard, until some local students from the U32 and Montpelier High schools\’ Nordic teams slid up on their skis to help.
Eventually, the power of the people online, in person, and in all kinds of weather was what was successful at moving the needle on public opinion to the point where we had enough political movement power to convince legislators to vote to shut down VY. To this day, Vermont remains the only state to have chosen to retire a nuclear power plant by a legislative vote. (A court decision later overturned that legislative action, but the damage to VY’s reputation was done. The public and regulators had lost confidence in the plant’s operators.)
When the final decision to close Vermont Yankee for good came in 2014, we had a heck of a party in the streets of Montpelier. By that time, I’d handed the baton on to other VPIRG field staff and joined the Board. And I had my first inkling of what my elders at VPIRG must have felt like watching us organize lobby days in a blizzard, or solar powered concerts in the summer. I was one part of a big, long story of a brave little state that ultimately chose to move away from nuclear power. And I was part of a bold, smart, tenacious team of VPIRG organizers who made it happen over 40+ years of hard work, long nights, lots of laughs, and a few tears.
In the years since VY’s closure, a new generation of VPIRGers has stepped up, focusing on replacing the energy that VY had generated with safer, clean energy alternatives.
As we look to the future, we envision a Vermont where all Vermonters can power their homes and vehicles with safe, clean, affordable energy—a lot of it produced locally right here in Vermont. And I know that we can make that a reality, because while some of the faces have changed, the smarts, tenacity and grassroots power that won the day and shut down that dangerous, aging power plant lives on in the VPIRG community today.