The announcement this week that Vermont Yankee – the 41 year old nuclear power plant in southern Vermont that has been an object of derision for decades for anti-nuclear social movement activists – will be closed is an opportunity for climate justice and anti-nuclear movements to clarify that our fight is not only against this particular form of extreme energy. Rather we need to focus on the social arrangements that produce the need for these destructive technologies – a set of arrangements that both further and depend upon the ever-growing extension of corporate profits and state power.
On the one hand, we should remember that when the ruling classes are defeated in small or big ways, they never willingly acknowledge the role of people’s movements in their defeat. That part is up to us. Still, people’s movement victories are never complete victories. That means we need to celebrate our achievements in shifting the political and regulatory climate to facilitate this closure, but without deluding ourselves or others into complicity with the newly reformed environment that we’ve helped to bring about. At the same time, we should give credit to the many dedicated and thoughtful organizers and activists who – through decades of struggle – have helped bring about a situation where, by the end of 2014, VY will no longer be actively running.
On the other hand, I think that one of the reasons Entergy gave for closing VY was entirely plausible and correct, even if incomplete. They pointed to the fact that the enormous glut of fracked natural gas that we’ve seen in the last decade in the United States has radically transformed the economics of electricity generation. We also know that, at least in the U.S., many coal plants are shutting down, and we have to be honest and clear that a big part of the reason for this is that resource extraction is shifting away somewhat from coal right now and rapidly increasing with the calamitous practice of fracking for shale gas. This process, unfortunately, is more subject to the vicissitudes of the capitalist market than to the initiatives of environmental movements.
Capitalist energy production is proving itself to be very flexible in a historical moment where energy companies are contending with resource bases that they have substantially depleted. Our movement’s critique must cut to the heart of that underlying system and not be limited to the horrors of each particular technology.
But our claims of victory also must acknowledge that there are many more fights on the immediate horizon – not only about the threat of nuclear power in general, but of Vermont Yankee in particular. As Arnie Gundersen explains, there is not enough money available in Entergy’s decommissioning fund to safely shut down this power plant. The fundamental problem is that to be profitable, this industry must cut corners on safety. Doing otherwise would clearly undermine their lavish profits. So the anti-nuclear movement is left with the urgent and difficult task of forcing the same company that has been profiting all these years by cutting corners on safety to pay to contain the unspeakable dangers it has created. This task is inextricably connected to denying the company the right to set the basic terms for how the decommissioning proceeds, because the company has a financial incentive to distort the safety picture to reduce their financial liability.
So far, I draw the following specific conclusions from this week’s announcement about VY’s immanent closure:
1) We need to celebrate this victory in a measured way that still takes credit for what the anti-nuclear movement has been able to accomplish.
2) We need to renew a strategic focus on stopping fracking, which seriously threatens the northeast United States, and do so as part of a broader program of contesting extreme energy projects in all their forms, including nuclear power, mountaintop coal, tar sands, mega-dams and all other new forms of destructive energy extraction as well.
3) We need to illustrate that the very most important demand we still need to win in the fight to shut down Vermont Yankee is to force Entergy to pay to pay for containing the nuclear waste it continues producing. This work proceeds with full knowledge that taking full responsibility for their long-lived nuclear waste will likely bankrupt the nuclear industry once and for all.
The tough road in front of us and the strength our adversaries maintain should not stop us from taking pride in our achievements as a movement.