The road not taken: The semicentennial of Charlotte’s nuclear power

Photo illustration of Charlotte Beach with cooling tower. Image contributed.

In a parallel universe, Charlotte is celebrating 50 years of hosting nuclear power—or perhaps regretting it.

The fork in the road that our universe took came on the unremarkable date of September 11, 1969, when 1,500 people filed into the Patrick Gymnasium at the University of Vermont. Scientists, politicians and citizens were treated to 70 exhibits promoting the safe and clean adoption of a nuclear energy plant on Lake Champlain. But all their eyes and ears were trained on a handful of visitors: the emissaries from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) invited by Governor Deane C. Davis to explain why nuclear power was a good idea. It was the first time the AEC had ever ventured out to a state to engage with its citizens.

The plant was proposed to rise just south of the covered bridge at the Charlotte beach on a 140-acre farm parcel owned by the Thurber family. It was before the Current Use program existed, and the Thurbers could no longer afford taxes on the land. They had been approached by the Central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CVPS), Vermont Yankee’s major shareholder, who assured them of the intrinsic safety of any future plant, so they kept a spot alongside it for their farmhouse and sold the rest for $260,000 ($1.8 million in 2019 dollars).

When word of the sale got out, Vermont Yankee publicly downplayed the purchase, saying it had no plans to develop nuclear power in Charlotte. This was only technically true, as those plans were still being drawn up. The power generated would be 1-2 million kilowatts, or two to four times the size of the plant then under construction in Vernon.

In January of 1969, the Charlotte Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend to the Selectboard that construction of the plant be opposed. But at that time, this judgment had no teeth. Power producers were virtually unregulated in Vermont. It took the timely introduction of a bill proposed by state Senator Luther Hackett (R-South Burlington) to change that. For the first time, it required environmental impacts to be considered by the Public Service Board (now the Public Utility Commission) before receiving approval.

Enjoying bipartisan support, the bill became law on April 5, 1969. With Charlotte’s predicament in mind, Hackett commented “We can’t find enough money to buy a cold-water lake like Champlain. It may be in our capacity to go to the moon. But it is not in our capacity to buy a cold-water lake.” Note, this was three months before Neil Armstrong bounded on the lunar surface. And years before Chernobyl and Fukushima made the danger of nuclear meltdowns real.

The chief threat to the lake was thought to be the impact of warm water discharge on fish populations and increased algal growth. Radiation was characterized by nuclear advocates as a scare tactic blown out of proportion by the uninformed. U.S. Senator (and former Vermont governor) George Aiken expressed strong support, speaking out and writing editorials claiming that a nuclear plant would release far less radiation than even a coal-fired plant.

Leading the opposition to this rosy idea of nuclear power on the lake was the fledgling Lake Champlain Committee. Its general counsel was a young lawyer named Peter S. Paine Jr. Now 84 years old, chairman of the Lake Champlain National Bank and with a lifetime of environmental activism behind him, Paine recalls that afternoon in the Patrick Gym 50 years ago and how it went wrong for the nuclear cause. “People in Vermont are kind of used to getting their questions answered. But the demeanor of the feds was ‘Daddy knows best.’” They belittled people’s concerns. As an offshoot of the military, the AEC was both a promoter and regulator of nuclear energy, and, Paine figures, its culture was unaccustomed to being questioned. That day the tide turned decisively against the plant. Governor Davis eventually opposed it. Several years later, Vermont Yankee quietly sold the land to developers.

In the aftermath, Charles Meredith, the president of the CVPS, wouldn’t speak to Paine. “He hated my guts,” Paine recalls. But when they did finally meet up again years later, Meredith thanked him. “You probably saved my company. The cost overruns would have ruined us.”

In this, the 50th year of nuclear power in Charlotte, somewhere in that other universe, what would a glimpse at the headlines reveal? DEBATE OVER CHARLOTTE NUCLEAR WASTE DISPOSAL DRAGS ONWHITE HOUSE VETOES SUPERFUND SUPPORT FOR VERMONT…?  And maybe there is an opinion piece about the road not taken, by some improvident dreamer trying to imagine a Charlotte beach without a shadow cast over it by a cooling tower.

Kevin Burget is a member of the Charlotte Conservation Commission