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Story Meltdown

Watts on Public Meltdown.

Say “meltdown” and many will think of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima — nuclear power plants stricken by disaster where cooling systems failed and the reactor core spiked to thousands of degrees, literally melting fuel rods and spewing radiation.

Happily, this list doesn’t include Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, in Vernon, on the banks of the Connecticut River.

Still, UVM’s Richard Watts watched Vermont Yankee go through a metaphorical meltdown — and decided to write a book about it, Public Meltdown: The Story of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, published by UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont.

From citizen to scapegoat

“This book is about another kind of meltdown, a public meltdown that took place over an eight year period, ” says Watts, assistant research professor in Community Development and Applied Economics.

In Watts' use of the term, he means the weakening and collapse of a once-compelling story: in 2002, the plant was widely viewed as as a “good neighbor,” a “quiet, well-run valuable asset,” Watts says, with support from much of Vermont’s political leadership.

By 2010, “something happened,” Watts writes, to make this narrative fail.

From the ashes, a new storyline arose of Vermont Yankee “as a pariah,” an unwanted blight owned by conniving out-of-state masters. The plant had become so politically toxic that it was “abandoned even by its former owners, the Vermont electric utilities,” Watts writes in his book.

From 1972 until this March, Vermont Yankee provided one-third of the state’s power. Today, the plant still operates, but none of its power is sold to Vermont utilities and its fate is uncertain.

Watts, an expert on media discourse and energy, wanted to understand, as he says, “What happened? How did this nuclear power plant go from being a key part of our infrastructure to rejection by Vermont’s political leaders?”

To trace this story, Watts turned to 1,400 newspaper articles gathered from the time the power plant was sold to Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation in 2002 until the Vermont Senate voted to shut the plant in 2010. He interviewed dozens of observers and experts. He pored over government documents. And he brought his own experience as a resident, former journalist and analyst to the task.

Three events emerged for Watts as pivotal in reshaping opinion about the plant. First was the dramatic collapse of a cooling tower at the plant in 2007. Second, Vermont’s utilities were unable to arrive at an agreement with Entergy to purchase electricity from the plant. And, finally, with trust eroding, it emerged by January 2010 that radioactive fluid was leaking from pipes under the plant — pipes that company officials had previously said did not exist.

At a company’s core

But underneath these happenings, was a more fundamental and intractable failure, Watts argues: the inability of Entergy to understand and navigate the “social and political and policy culture of Vermont,” he says.

The new book chronicles many of these mistakes. In one example, the Louisiana company launched a “Vermonter to Vermonter” advertising campaign that appeared to backfire, arousing distrust and anger — propelling forward the storyline that Vermont Yankee was now controlled by underhanded out-of-state interests. Relations with Vermont legislators and regulators soured as the perception grew that Entergy was hiding information and negotiating in bad faith.

This blundering — in both the court of public opinion and in legislative chambers — was capitalized on by anti-nuclear activists, and other opponents of the plant, Watts writes, allowing them to reframe the conversation around Vermont Yankee, painting it as dangerous and old.

In February 2010, the Vermont Senate, in a bipartisan effort, voted 26-4 to close the plant, denying a requested extension to operate beyond the end of its March 2012 license. Entergy, to some, appeared to have lost its battle in Vermont.

“If Entergy had better PR would they have won?” Watts asks. Probably not, he thinks. Their approach was deeper than appearances, he argues. “It’s something core to the way they operate that led to this impasse,” he says.

Now what?

Of course, the impasse remains, and the state senate vote is not the end of the story.

March 21, 2012, came and went. And Vermont Yankee remains open. Its original 40-year operating license expired that day, but the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, over the protests of Vermont’s legislature and governor, granted the nuclear power plant a 20-year extension.

The next chapters remain unwritten, with a case in federal appeals court, a new review by Vermont’s Public Service Board about whether the plant should get a renewed state operating permit, and ongoing protests and maneuvering about Vermont Yankee’s future.

Meanwhile the plant continues to churn out more than 600 megawatts of emissions-free power — some seventy percent of all the electricity generated in Vermont — employs 650 people and holds a license to continue operations until 2032.

So what should happen to Vermont Yankee?

Framing facts

“People keep asking me what should happen. I don’t know what should or shouldn’t happen,” Watts says, “I want people to make up their own minds.” Which, Watts' book makes clear, we do not as idealized rational actors, but emotionally, in a turbulent sea of stories and stereotypes.

“All we want are the facts,” said 1950’s TV detective Joe Friday, thereby revealing his lack of understanding of cognitive psychology. If George Lakoff — and other theorists of “framing” that Watts studies — are to be believed, facts never stand alone or speak for themselves. Instead facts take on meaning by being embedded in “frames,” larger master stories or metaphors that we carry around with us, often unconsciously, that shape which facts are taken as important — and which as trivial.

Watts' book illuminates some of the frames that people brought to understanding Vermont Yankee over nearly a decade — and how those frames clashed and changed as events unfolded.

“All I did was trace the changes in the storyline. Was Vermont Yankee in some objective way falling apart? Was it actually unsafe?” Watts says. “I don’t know. That’s not the story I’m telling.”

The story he is telling, the agenda he proudly acknowledges, is about Vermont’s culture. “This is a great story,” he says, “because it illustrates some of the most compelling cultural and historical narratives of Vermont: citizen participation, town meetings, transparency to decision-making.”

In Vermont, where Victory and Granby didn’t get electric power until 1963, electricity is more than just a commodity, Watts says, it’s freighted with a story about rural independence and democracy. “Involvement in decisions around electricity are embedded in our state culture,” he says.

Now before you go stomping off complaining about academic relativism, Samuel Johnson kicking the stone to refute Bishop Berkeley, and such — keep in mind that framing theory doesn’t deny the facticity of the world. Facts are facts, things happen. It simply asserts that we depend on stories and stereotypes to create a filter — a frame — that allows us to interpret the importance of facts and make sense of the world and shape our choices and allegiances.

In this context, for Watts, “narrative integrity” is important. “That means you could have competing stories, but one will do better,” he says. “One of things that gives a story its resonance, its integrity, is that it conforms with unfolding events,” he says.

He holds up the example of opponents of Vermont Yankee claiming that the plant is unsafe and falling apart. “And then the cooling tower collapses,” he says, providing strong reinforcement for their narrative.

With a federal court battle gearing up, and Entergy making a costly gamble in the summer of 2011 to refuel the Vermont Yankee plant despite uncertainty about its license, the story has moved from a local stage to a state one -- and now a national stage as states around the U.S. consider what to do about their own aging nuclear plants. In this charged atmosphere, Watts thinks, “this case could go on for a very long time.” Whether his guess about a lengthy national chapter for Vermont Yankee proves true remains to be seen, but Watts will certainly be following the stories.