Dirty Words, Green Thoughts   Leave a comment

Compromises.  They get bad press. In this time of American public life, compromise is among the worst of bad words.  It’s true that we often seem weakest where we make one.  That’s OK, as long as we aren’t blindsided by them, as long as our compromises aren’t destructive to us, as long as we can make them and live with them as conscious acts.  But any one of those challenges can pierce us to the core.

As a case in point, I want to address a “local” issue that echoes everywhere.  Last December, over a thousand residents in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts gathered to protest the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee (VY) Nuclear Plant beyond its original 40-year licensing period. There were over 130 arrests, though the protest remained orderly — both protesters and police had prepared months in advance.

As Vermont transplants rather than natives, my wife and I inherited the controversy when we settled here over a decade ago.   So first, some details — as unbiased as I can make them, from sources on both sides. A Druid tries to find the multiple tertiaries or neglected alternatives between two opposed binaries, so bear with me here.

First, the pros:  VY has been through $400 million of upgrades since it was first commissioned in 1972.  These include a 2006 retrofit that allows the reactor to generate approximately 20% more energy than its original design specifies, obviating the need to build other plants or increase fossil fuel use.  Vermont relies on the plant for about 30% of its current energy use, and when VY is down for refueling, increased consumption of gas and oil must make up the difference.  Decommissioning the plant would require finding other (and mostly more expensive) energy sources to make up the shortfall.  Published estimates put the pollution savings over the past four decades  of operation at 50 million tons of carbon that VY’s nuclear capacity has avoided dumping into our atmosphere.  That clean operation contributes heavily to keeping our famously pristine Vermont air famously pristine. Employment statistics put the number of jobs directly connected with the plant and its operation at around 650 people, and the impact on the state economy in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Obviously, shutting down the plant isn’t just a matter of pulling the plug.

Second, the cons:  VY’s design closely resembles the Fukushima reactor in Japan that failed in the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.   The 2006 upgrade that allows VY to generate approximately 20% more energy beyond its original design specs imposes unknown and unstudied stresses on a reactor structure deteriorating in spite of repairs — uncertainties the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) admits.  The plant stores its spent fuel in containment tanks that are now already at 95% capacity, yet the scheduled recommissioning is for another 20 years.   VY sits on the Connecticut River, whose waters ultimately empty into Long Island Sound.  An accident to either the reactor or fuel containment pools would not only affect the immediate area of mostly small towns, but carry radiation and waste downstream directly into the middle of  major centers of population like Springfield and Hartford, and numerous smaller towns like Greenfield, Deerfield, Northampton and Holyoke, MA, and Enfield, Middletown and Old Saybrook, CT.  It would then spread into the Long Island Sound and quickly impact eastern Long Island.  Tucking the spent rods and other waste away in “remote locations” like Yucca Mountain is no real solution, only a poor stop-gap measure.

Critics cite a string of mostly minor incidents at the plant over the years — small leaks, structural failures, and accidental discharges, as well as cover-ups, lies, bribery and arrogance in responses by the parent company Entergy, which runs eleven other nuclear plants around the country. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin openly says he wants VY shut down.  Entergy’s own website for VY (at www.safecleanreliable.com) addresses safety, somewhat obliquely, with a list of emergency contact numbers and the statement:  “The area approximately 10 miles around the Vermont Yankee is called the Emergency Planning Zone. Plans have been developed for warning and protecting people within this 10-mile area.”  Within this 10 mile radius live approximately 35,000 people. Yet after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan, the NRC recommended that Japan extend its emergency safety zone radius to 50 miles.   The number of people within a 50 mile radius of VY is 1,500,000.

Here’s an aerial view of VY, courtesy of Entergy:

VY may well be shut down in some future election cycle, or it may face a spate of incidents that call into question its safety.  It may even run safely (for a nuclear plant) until its all of its operating extensions expire.  Until then, unless I and everyone else who benefits from the plant volunteer to cut our energy usage by that 30% that VY generates, and help subsidize a transfer to alternate sources of energy, can we justify our self-righteous claims to “shut it down” with no further personal sacrifice?  What are we willing to give in order to get what we want?

Though some people deride our Druid rituals and mock our perspectives about the earth, what we do to the world we do to ourselves in very real ways.  The facts can be disputed — the principle operates in full force as it always has.  What goes around comes around: we know this, which is why such sayings have penetrated the common language and consciousness.  We alive today are part of the world’s karma — our karma, the choices we make and actions we take every day.  I turned on the oven to heat my lunch earlier today.  Would I be willing to make do with a solar oven, or eat my meal cold, or … any of a number of alternatives?

A Wise One observed that in the last decade the entire world had the opportunity to accept a major initiation — a step forward in consciousness, based in large part on our accepting greater responsibility for our actions and their consequences.  As a single aware corporate entity, the world consciousness refused this opportunity.  (Was it majority vote?!) Individually we still all grow at our own paces, but we also take part in a world shaped by planetary consciousness as a whole, to which we each contribute a part.  We can plainly see the results all around us right now, and whatever we may think of the ultimate causes, they began in human choices. As Gandalf observes (and why shouldn’t a decent movie Druid get his share of press?), if we regret the choices we see and the consequences of those choices which we know many will suffer, “so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  And that is enough for any film character, or four-dimensional beings like ourselves.  Each life improved is a life improved, and within our circles we can accomplish much of value before we leave this world.  It is not our task to redeem the planet.  World-saviors appear in flesh and myth to do such tasks.  (Unless you’re signing up for the job, in which case you should have been told where to go and what to do.  Just don’t ask me.)  The time that is given to us is enough to fill with the best that is in us right now — not in some imagined future “when we — or our people — have the power.”  To leave the last words again to Gandalf:  “[I]t is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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