Nature & Environment Archive


Spotlight on Sourlands at Top Environmental Film Festivals

Friday, February 1st, 2013

From Golden, Colorado to Washington, D.C., the story of a small forest in New Jersey is finding admirers.Sourlands, distributed on DVD by Chelsea Green Publishing and Hundred Year Films, hits the road in 2013 as an official selection of the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, and the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.

“The film explores a timely question: With 7 billion people on Earth, how can we make sure the natural world doesn’t get squeezed into oblivion?” says director Jared Flesher.

To find answers, Flesher went to a small forest in New Jersey — the nation’s most densely populated state — and started following around the locals. The colorful subjects of the film are a diverse bunch: hunters, farmers, birders, biologists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

“Ultimately, this isn’t a story about trees,” says Flesher. “It’s a story about regular people looking for good, meaningful work, a sense of home, and some balance in their lives.”

Flesher worked as a one-man film crew, exploring every corner of the Sourlands forest and the surrounding community over 16 months of production. He credits a 1968 book by author John McPhee, The Pine Barrens, as an inspiration for the film.

“John McPhee showed me that the best way to tell an environmental story relevant to people everywhere is, paradoxically, to tell a good story about just one small corner of the world.”

Sourlands screens at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival on Feb. 9, the Colorado Environmental Film Festival on Feb. 24, and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital on March 13. A full listing of upcoming Sourlands screenings is available at www.sourlands.com.

Director Jared Flesher can be reached at [email protected]

In This State: Tim Matson is Vermont’s Supreme Ponderer of Ponds

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

Tim Matson, author of Landscaping Earth Ponds, is Vermont’s resident expert on small-scale, man-made bodies of water. His work as a pond consultant, as well as his book and DVD, have been leading people to water for years, and this week Matson was profiled on VTDigger’s series In This State.

Article by Dick Van Susteren.

Like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Tim Matson travels the countryside bringing value to landscape – only he plants ponds not fruit trees. By his reckoning, in 25 years he has helped design or revitalize some 500 ponds in Vermont.

Matson has found an income stream with ponds, and why not? John Chapman (Appleseed), was known to pick up a free lunch here and there during his meanderings with seed bags across the Midwest.

Pond consulting augments freelancing for this writer-photographer from Strafford. If Vermont decides it ever needs an official pond guru, as it has a state flower and bird, Matson would be a top candidate.

Tim Matson pond

Pond consultant and author Tim Matson offered consultation on this Orange County pond, a little gem that cost less than $2,000 to build. (Photo furnished by Tim Matson)

It all began in 1971 when Matson, then 28, joined thousands of other counter-culture types in immigrating to Vermont, where farmland was cheap and native residents were generally tolerant of newcomers, even those with long hair.

Matson had done a stint in the military, where he had the good luck, in his mind, to avoid Vietnam by being accepted at Army photography school. After his service he wangled a job in book publishing in New York, where his father had been a noted literary agent.

He wound up at divisions of Simon & Schuster, pulling a decent salary as a jack-of-all-trades, copy editing, buying reprint rights, writing book jacket copy, sometimes even taking photos. Matson, now gray-haired, dates himself by mentioning he had a role in helping to bring Yippie Abbie Hoffman’s book, “Revolution for the Hell of It,” to paperback.

On a cold December day in a field in central Vermont, where he is scoping out possible pond sites for a landowner, he mentions with a laugh that it was his photo of author Joe McGinniss that graced the back cover another political classic of the times: “The Selling of the President, 1968,” the story of hucksterism in Richard Nixon’s campaign.

As befits the historic stereotype, Matson arrived in Vermont in a VW bug, a red one at that. He had grown “absolutely and totally sick of the city,” and unhappy with the political system, he says, he was moved by the “back-to-the-land movement” of the period.

His first brush with ponds was the waterhole at a farmhouse that he and a girlfriend had rented in Thetford. It turned out to be a perfect place for hippie parties, skinny-dipping and other wild affairs. He tasted the pond bait and was hooked.

Three years later, with help of a $7,500 advance on his second book (“Pilobolus,” a photo essay of the famous Dartmouth College dance group), Matson bought 45 woodland acres in Strafford and pitched a tent he called home and began building a cabin, with among other tools, a chainsaw. He got along without electricity, put in vegetable gardens, cleared a spot in the alders for his second pond, and then hired a guy with a backhoe.

“I grew up in Connecticut on the Sound, and found that I missed the water, and I wondered where it all was in Vermont,” he says. He couldn’t find enough of it close by, “so I had this pond dug.”

Marriage and two daughters (now grown) followed, and the pond became the focus of family life: Swimming in summer, ice-skating in winter, and, always it seemed, opportunities for social life and observing wildlife.

A snapshot taken years ago of pond designer Tim Matson’s daughters as they enjoy the water on a summer day at the family home in Strafford. (Photo furnished by Tim Matson)

Matson embraced rural life, and, as a freelance writer began writing essays and how-to’s about back-40 ponds for the likes of Harrowsmith, Mother Earth News, Country Journal and Yankee Magazine.

For children and the young at heart, he says, ponds are part zoo, playground, museum and amusement park.

“Kids love to hang out at them, make mud pies, fool around with salamanders, and watch dragonflies,” he says.

“I think too many kids today suffer from what a friend of mine calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’. … They are too much into phones and computers; they live in a screen world.”

Matson is bullish on family ponds of all sizes and shapes, but he’s quick to warn that a once-promising body of water can easily become a costly headache if poorly designed. They can turn to algae-infested quagmires They can even disappear due to drought or leakage.

A pond can also cost a lot, anywhere from $5,000 to more than $50,000, he explains.

Walking across the brown-gray landscape and looking for potential pond sites, and carefully choosing verbs that sidestep certitude, Matson says, “That could be a spot.”

Keep reading over at VTDigger

When Technology Fails: The Compact Survival Kit

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

When the poop hits the fan, you don’t want to be caught with your pants down—so to speak. You’ll want to have your compact emergency survival kit packed and at the ready—and as small and light as possible. That means packing only the essentials.

For more tips and advice from Stein, check out his recent appearance on FireDogLake’s Book Salon, here. Author Barry Eisler hosted the online event, and Stein answered reader questions about topics such as water storage and purification.

Being prepared for the worst doesn’t involve a one-shot prescription for everyone. As Mat said in response to a reader, “If you have little money, focus on skills and knowledge. If you are old and infirm, focus on friends and relationships. No one person can know, do, and have it all. Focus on that which is within your physical and financial means.”

In the excerpt below, Mat Stein tells you exactly what you need in your compact survival kit.

The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, Revised and Expanded by Matthew Stein. It has been adapted for the Web.

Be prepared. The following basic survival kit is small enough to slip into the top pocket of a knapsack or a coat pocket. It fits into a 2-ounce tobacco tin or other small case, and its weight is hardly noticeable. Polish the inside of the case to a mirror finish for signaling. Check the contents of the case regularly, to replace items that have exceeded their shelf lives. Tape the box seams with duct tape to waterproof the container.

  • Matches. Fire can be started by other means, but matches are the easiest. Waterproof matches are useful, but bulkier than ordinary stick matches. You can waterproof ordinary matches by dipping them in molten candle wax. Break large kitchen matches in half to save room for more matches. Include a striker torn from a book of paper matches.
  • Candle. Great for helping to start a fire with damp wood, as well as for a light and heat source. Shave it square to save space in your kit.
  • Flint with steel striker. Flint will last long after your matches are used up. You must find very dry, fine tinder to start a fire with sparks from a flint. Solid magnesium fire-starter kits are an excellent improvement on the traditional flint with steel. Using a knife to scrape magnesium shavings from the magnesium bar, you light the shavings with a spark from the flint, and they burn hotly to easily ignite the tinder.
  • Magnifying glass. Useful for starting a fire with direct sunlight or for finding splinters.
  • Needle and thread. Choose several needles, including at least one with a very large eye, which can handle yarn, sinew, or heavy thread. Wrap with several feet of extra-strong thread.
  • Fishhooks and line. A selection of different hooks in a small tin or packet. Include several small, split-lead sinkers and as much fishing line as possible.
  • Compass. A small, luminous-dial compass (for night reading). Make sure that you know how to read it and that the needle swings freely. A string is handy for hanging it around your neck for regular reference.
  • Micro-flashlight. A keychain LED-type (light emitting diode) lamp, such as the Photon Microlight II. It is useful for reading a map at night or following a trail when there is no moon.
  • Brass wire. Three to five feet of lightweight brass wire. Wire is useful for making snares and repairing things.
  • Flexible saw. These come with large rings for handles that can be removed to allow it to fit into your kit. While using the saw, insert sticks through the end loops for more useful and comfortable handles. Coat the saw with a film of grease or oil to protect it from rust.


Figure 4-1. Compact survival kit.

  • Survival knife. For overnight backcountry travel or as part of your car kit, I would also carry a stout knife with about a 6-inch blade. If the knife has a folding blade, it should have a heavy-duty blade lock. It should be strong enough to use as a pry and to split branches and cut hardwoods without damage. You may need a knife to fabricate crude tools, such as a bow and drill for starting a fire without matches. A variety of “survival” knives are available; they are capable of cutting various materials, including thin sheet metal, and will do nicely. If the knife has a fixed blade, it should be covered in a sheath that it can’t easily cut through. Some knives come with a small sharpening stone in the sheath, which is a nice feature.
  • Condom. When placed in a sock or other cloth for protection and support, this makes a good emergency water bottle.
  • Compact medical kit. Vary the contents depending on your skill and needs. Pack medicines in airtight containers with cotton balls to prevent powdering and rattling. The following list, which is a rough guide, will cover most needs.
    • Mild pain reliever. Pack at least ten of your favorite aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol, or other pain reliever.
    • Diarrhea medicine. Immodium is usually favored. Take two capsules initially, and then one each time a loose stool is passed.
    • Antibiotic. For general infections. People who are sensitive to penicillin can use tetracycline. Carry enough for a full course of 5 to 7 days. Use Echinacea or grapefruit seed extract from the health food store, if prescription antibiotics are not available.
    • Antihistamine. For allergies, insect bites, and stings, use Benadryl or equivalent.
    • Water purification tablets. Much lighter and more compact than a filter. For use when you can’t boil your water.
    • Potassium permanganate. Has several uses. Add to water and mix until water becomes bright pink to sterilize it, a deeper pink to make a topical antiseptic, and a full red to treat fungal diseases, such as athlete’s foot.
    • Salt tablets. Salt depletion can lead to muscle cramps and loss of energy. Carry 5 to 10 salt tablets.
    • Surgical blades. At least two scalpel blades of different sizes. A handle can be made of wood, if required.
    • Butterfly sutures. To hold edges of wounds together.
    • Band-Aids. Assorted sizes, preferably waterproof, for covering minor wounds and keeping them clean. Can be cut to make butterfly sutures (adapted from Wiseman 1996, 16).

If the World Ends Friday, Will you be Prepared?

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Okay, so we don’t think the world is really going to end Friday. The end of the Mayan calendar is confusing, sure. Ominous? You bet. But we’ve made it through Y2K together, and Snowpocalypse, and Carmageddon, and countless other would-be apocalypses (apocali?).

Apocalyptic thinking can distract us from the very real problems that people and the planet are facing every day. From climate change to social justice issues, pollution, violence, heck, even the seemingly miniscule fact that your coworker is in a bad mood today are all more pressing than a distant daydream of disaster.

And imagining an apocalypse can push you into a mood of despair, which makes it hard to take practical measures to ensure you’ll be okay if something bad does happen. Don’t waste time being fearful that the end is nigh — take some time to get prepared so you can feel safe no matter what happens.

With the books below, you’ll be able to do just that. Prepare to make the best of it no matter what.

There’s never been a better time to “be prepared.” When Technology Fails is Matthew Stein’s comprehensive primer on sustainable living skills—from food and water to shelter and energy to first-aid and crisis-management skills.

The book prepares you to embark on the path toward sustainability. But unlike any other book, Stein not only shows you how to live “green” in seemingly stable times, but to live in the face of potential disasters, lasting days or years, coming in the form of social upheaval, economic meltdown, or environmental catastrophe.

In Matthew Stein’s newest book, When Disaster Strikes, he breaks down how to be prepared for specific disastrous events and the particular challenges they pose. Stein instructs you on the smartest responses to natural disasters—such as fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods—how to keep warm during winter storms, even how to protect yourself from attack or other dangerous situations. With this comprehensive guide in hand, you can be sure to respond quickly, correctly, and confidently when a crisis threatens.

Here at Chelsea Green, we’re not afraid to look at the dark side. Just in case it becomes abundantly clear that the world as we know it IS going to end, we hope you’ll have at least a few hours to prepare. Why not contemplate your demise with the help of a great book? Here are a couple we recommend.

Open the book one way, and read Tyler Volk’s essay on DEATH: What is shared by spawning Pacific salmon, towering trees, and suicidal bacteria? In his lucid and concise exploration of how and why things die, Tyler Volk explains the intriguing ways creatures—including ourselves—use death to actually enhance life.

. . . then flip the book over to read Dorion Sagan’s essay on SEX: In Sex, Dorion Sagan takes a delightful, irreverent, and informative romp through the science, philosophy, and literature of humanity’s most obsessive subject. A brief, wonderfully entertaining, highly literate foray into the origins and evolution of sex.

Join renowned essayist Edward Hoagland as he ponders the meaning of life, aging, and sex in his book, Sex and the River Styx. Called the best essayist of his time by luminaries like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland brings readers his ultimate collection. In Sex and the River Styx, the author’s sharp eye and intense curiosity shine through in essays that span his childhood exploring the woods in his rural Connecticut, his days as a circus worker, and his travels the world over in his later years.

Don’t forget: during our Holiday Sale you can save 35% on every purchase. Just use the discount code CGFL12 when you check out!

Image credit Matthew Stevenson

Save on Nature and Simple Living Books this Holiday Season

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

It’s as likely as anything that the sun will rise on December 22 on a planet still facing all the same problems we face now: climate change, political division, corporate exploitation of people and the planet, environmental degradation. With an everyday reality like this, who needs a Mayan-inspired apocalypse?!

Whether the world ends on December 21, or the day passes just like any other, you’ll be set with plenty of inspiring and useful reading material as this week we’re featuring all our Nature & Environment and Simple Living books as part of our end-of-year sale.

If you’re prepping for the worst, take a look at Matthew Stein’s classic survival guide When Technology Fails for suggestions on how to survive in the post-apocalypse world—or, how to live in a post-peak-oil world. Pair that with Stein’s latest book, When Disaster Strikes, which details how to survive six specific disaster scenarios—fire, hurricanes, earthquakes, solar flares, and even nuclear fallout. Or perhaps, Dreaming the Future, a good choice for everyone who wants to build a better future by exploring the changes needed to chart a sustainable path forward.

Happy Apocalypse, er, Holidays from the Employee Owners at Chelsea Green Publishing!

P.S. Don’t forget to use the code CGFL12 to save 35% when you checkout at chelseagreen.com. Plus, get free shipping on orders over $100.

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Simple Living, Nature & Environment: 

Please keep in mind that discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books already on sale

for example. Free shipping of orders $100 or more applies after discount code.  Phone orders please call 800-639-4099.

Diane Wilson Released from Jail!

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

This just in from Tar Sands Blockade, Diane Wilson, author of Diary of an Eco-Outlaw and An Unreasonable Woman has been released from jail!:

After being held for nearly a week under the torturous and inhumane conditions of the Harris County Jail, Diane Wilson has been bailed out!

Diane is a 4th generation shrimper and a lifelong Texan. She is the Executive Director for the San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper’s, and a founding member of the following organizations: Code Pink-Women for Peace, the Texas Jail Project, Texas Injured Workers, and Injured Workers National Network. While in jail Diane was denied water for over 78 hours and will soon be giving a first person account of her experience.

On Thursday, November 29th, Diane locked her neck to an industrial tanker that was hooked up to a pumping station outside the Valero refinery in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston. She is also on the 7th day of a sustained hunger strike, demanding that Valero divest from the Keystone XL Pipeline and vacate the community that they have been poisoning for decades.

Diane is pictured here with a member of Tar Sands Blockade; they are wearing masks as a display of solidarity with all those who do not have the privilege of having their identity exposed. In the neighborhood of Manchester many people have differing levels of “legal” status. Let us make their struggle our struggle as well. ¡Compañer@s en la rebeldía!

To learn more about the inhumane conditions of the Harris County Jail please visit: www.texasjailproject.org

For photos and information about last Thursdays action: http://tarsandsblockade.org/13th-action/

NO REFINERIES! NO PIPELINES! NO COMPROMISE!

In Memory of Lynn Margulis

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Lynn Margulis died in late November 2011. She was a longtime friend of Chelsea Green Publishing, and collaborated with us on the Sciencewriters Books imprint to develop outstanding science books for the general public.

A recent article in Orion (“State of the Species”) by Charles C. Mann, captured some of Lynn’s unbending scientific mind matched by an equally caring and playful spirit. Mann lives in Amherst and would often encounter Lynn while walking through town.

What follows is a brief excerpt from the article, but if interested you can also listen to Mann talk about Lynn in this Orion podcast interview about the article.

Bacteria and protists can do things undreamed of by clumsy mammals like us: form giant supercolonies, reproduce either asexually or by swapping genes with others, routinely incorporate DNA from entirely unrelated species, merge into symbiotic beings—the list is as endless as it is amazing. Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all?

This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.

Pure Lynn.

When Lynn died, she left behind a groundbreaking scientific legacy that spanned decades and inspired thousands of scientists, environmentalists, writers, and thinkers around the world. This unique anthology, collated by her son Dorion Sagan, includes essays that cover her early collaboration with James Lovelock, her critique of neo-darwinism, her support of David Griffin’s critique of the official account of 9/11, her love of Emily Dickinson, her inspiration of young scientists, especially women, and much more.

The book includes contributions from Dorion Sagan, Jorge Wagensberg, Moselio Schaechter, Andre Khalil, James Lovelock, Bruce Clarke, Niles Eldredge, Michael F. Dolan, Jan Sapp, Michael J. Chapman, Martin Brasier, Denis Noble, Josh Mitteldorf, Stefan Helmreich, William Irwin Thompson, David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb Jr., David Abram, Peter Westbroek, Rich Doyle, Joanna Bybee, Terry Y. Allen, Penny Boston, Emily Case, David Lenson, Betsey Dexter Dyer, and Lynn herself.

Below are some early reviews, and praise, for this tribute to Lynn’s lasting legacy.

“Margulis’s complex personality beguiles, frustrates, charms, and elevates various writers, resulting in a stunning portrait that no single remembrance could have captured.” — ForeWord Reviews

“Her insistence that most evolution involves symbiogenesis led to a lifetime of debate. It also leads to some inspired writing in this book of essays. This is a captivating read for anyone interested in what powers great scientists.” — Publishers Weekly

“I can’t imagine what the world of biological science in the twentieth century would have been had Lynn Margulis not come along. In this volume, we can read about some of the vast range of intellect she influenced.” — Wes Jackson, president, The Land Institute

“Lynn and I often argued, as good collaborators should, and we wrangled over the intricate finer points of self-regulation, but always remained good friends, perhaps because we were confident that we were right.” — Dr. James Lovelock, contributor, and author of The Vanishing Face of Gaia

“It was life—profligate, teeming life in all its weirdness—that held the magic for her, not this featherless biped with its confused aspirations. Lynn intuited and doggedly gathered evidence to show that most anything we two-leggeds take special pride in—our capacities for cogitation, conviviality, and culture—had been invented, eons before, by the microbial entities that compose us.” — David Abram, contributor, and author of Spell of the Sensuous

“It’s the ideas that really matter—and Lynn certainly had hers. They were novel and profound, and she simply wanted all the rest of the world to adjust their thinking to accommodate and embrace what she saw were the simple, beautiful truths that she had uncovered.” — Dr. Niles Eldredge, contributor, and author of Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life

“I hope that in due time she will be recognized as one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time.” — Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecotopia

To see “indomitable Lynn” for yourself, watch this video of her debate with Richard Dawkins at Oxoford.

And for sense of the reverence and love the book contains, read Dr. James Lovelock’s essay, On Lynn.

Now Available: Nuclear Roulette

Monday, November 19th, 2012

“Since the first toss of the atomic dice at a desert test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, incalculable harm has been done to our planet—its air, its water, its land, and its peoples. Tragically, much of this damage will remain as an invisible legacy that will shadow the lives of our children for generations. But if we continue to marshal our outrage, energy, and intelligence in the cause of principled and progressive change, there is still time to start turning our poisoned planet away from the deadly atom and toward a future where the sun shines far brighter than the lethal core of a reactor. We must demand a new paradigm for planetary survival, and a large part of that transformation will require a new conservation ethic and renewable renaissance.” — From the Introduction to Nuclear Roulette

Nuclear energy has entranced the industrialized world since it first emerged as a (supposedly) safe and benign use of the horrific power unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Praised as pollution-free, and “too cheap to meter,” atomic power seemed almost too good to be true. And it was.

Gar Smith’s new book, Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth, is now available in our bookstore, and it explains with crystalline clarity the reasons why this magical energy source is too dangerous to use. From the insolvable problems of storing radioactive waste products, to weapons proliferation, to the surprising fact that if you look at the total life cycle of a plant nuclear power isn’t even efficient, the book lays out a strong case against this power source.

Also featured in the book are the five worst reactors in the country. Including the infamous Entergy plant Vermont Yankee.

Below is the Foreword by the late Ernest Callenbach and Jerry Mander, as well as Gar Smith’s introduction to the book.

Nuclear Roulette: Foreword and Introduction

Playing Nuclear Roulette in Vermont

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Vermont’s lone nuclear reactor — Entergy-owned Vermont Yankee — has been named one of the five worst reactors in the United States, according to the new book Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

For much of the past Vermont Yankee has been the focus of ongoing state and federal regulatory investigations, legislative battles, and ongoing courtroom drama. It started running in 1972, and was recently given a 20-year operating extension by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

This coming weekend, and into next week, activists will renew their attention to the aging reactor in hopes they can finish the work of the Vermont Senate a few years ago — close down Vermont Yankee permanently.

In this new work — which we’re offering on sale this week — investigative journalist Gar Smith lists five nuclear facilities as the “worst reactors” in the United States. They were chosen because they are representative of the poor regulatory oversight that has endangered the public, and poisoned the environment. Many other nuclear power sites around the country have equally disturbing records of poor performance, emergency shutdowns, and close calls, which Smith details in ample supply in Nuclear Roulette.

“The consequences of poor regulatory oversight can be seen in the operating histories of the country’s nuclear reactors,” writes Smith in  Nuclear Roulette.

The other four reactors are: Entergy-owned Indian Point in New York; Davis-Besse in Ohio, and Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California.

Here is the section devoted to Vermont Yankee, which also exemplifies what happens when the industry and its lapdog regulators team up against the wishes of a state’s citizens and elected officials:

Vermont Yankee: The Green Mountain State vs. the NRC

On March 10, 2011, the NRC unanimously approved a 20-year license extension for the troubled Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Within hours of the decision, three similar General Electric Mark 1 reactors were knocked off-line by an earthquake in Japan—and all three overheated and exploded. Despite the devastation in Fukushima Prefecture, the NRC stood by its decision to allow the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee plant to continue operating through 2031. Given Vermont Yankee’s history of breakdowns and cover-ups—and the fact that a reactor accident here could put more than a million Americans at risk—the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear excoriated the NRC’s decision as both “audacious” and “reckless.”

Vermonters received another jolt when it was revealed that the NRC had voted to extend Vermont Yankee’s license even though its inspectors had discovered that critical electric cables powering the plant’s safety systems had been “submerged under water for extended periods of time.”

It was not the only maintenance failure of Entergy Corp., which had acquired the plant in 2002. The company has a reputation for “buying reactors cheap and running them into the ground.” In 2004, a poorly maintained electrical system set off a large fire in the plant’s turbine building that forced an emergency shutdown. In 2007, Vermont Yankee experienced a series of maintenance problems that included the dramatic collapse of a cooling tower. A waterfall of high-pressure water burst from a ruptured cooling pipe and tore a gaping hole in the plant’s wall. Entergy was able to hide the damage—but only until a concerned employee leaked a photo of the wreckage to the press. The huge gap in the side of the building was reminiscent of the hole in the side of the Pentagon following the 9/11 attacks.

Tritium + Entergy = Perjury

During state hearings in 2009, Entergy executives were asked if radioactive tritium detected in the soil and groundwater near the reactor could have leaked from the plant. Company officials repeatedly swore under oath that this was impossible since there were no underground pipes at the plant. It was not until January 2010, after a leak of radioactive tritium was traced to a series of subsurface pipes, that Entergy changed its story. While the plant didn’t have “underground pipes,” Entergy now explained, it did have “buried pipes.”

Attorney general William Sorrell began a 17-month investigation during which Entergy’s former executive vice president Curtis Hebert admitted that the company’s statements about the pipes “could have been more accurate.” The state ordered Entergy to remove more than 300,000 gallons of radioactive water fron the soil and ground water at the reactor site, and Vermont governor Peter Shumlin demanded the plant’s closure.

There’s another waste problem at the plant: a large and potentially lethal stockpile of used fuel rods. While Fukushima’s six reactors had between 360 and 500 tons of slowly dying fuel rods on-site, the nuclear graveyard at Vermont Yankee is filled with 690 tons of dangerously radioactive waste. And the storage pools for this spent fuel lack both backup cooling systems and backup generators.

Beyond Nuclear’s “Freeze Our Fukushimas” campaign, which aims to close all 23 Mark 1 reactors in the United States, hoped to score its first victory when Vermont Yankee’s 40-year operating license expired on March 21, 2012. The odds were improved by the fact that Vermont is the only state that gives lawmakers the authority to veto a nuclear power plant. In February 2010, a month after Entergy’s tritium scandal was exposed, the Vermont Senate voted 26–4 against issuing a new “certificate of public good” that would allow Vermont Yankee to continue operating.

Entergy Sues Vermont

In April 2011, Entergy’s lawyers responded by suing the governor and the state, claiming, “We have a right to continue operation.” On January 19, 2012, federal judge Garvan Murtha ruled that only the NRC could close a nuclear plant, and therefore Entergy was entitled to its new 20-year operating license. Murtha also made it clear that the Green Mountain State was not entitled to raise any questions regarding plant safety or the prices charged for nuclear power—under federal law, only the NRC could raise such matters.

The decision alarmed Beyond Nuclear and other critics who feared the nuclear industry and the federal government were working in concert “to pre-empt a state’s right to self determination for an energy future in the public good.” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) quickly weighed in. “If Vermont wants to move to energy efficiency and sustainable energy,” Sanders told the Burlington Free Press, “no corporation should have the right to force our state to stay tethered to an aging, problem-ridden nuclear plant.”

Eight days after the judge’s decision, Entergy refused the state’s second request to investigate the source of a tritium leak that had poisoned a drinking well on the plant’s property. On July 25, 2011, Entergy further demonstrated its disregard for due process by announcing a $60 million refueling project—an investment that would pay off only if the power plant won its extension.

Entergy’s lawyers publicly confirmed their understanding that the company still needs the permission of Vermont’s Public Service Board (a quasi-official board that oversees Vermont’s utilities) if it is to continue operating its reactors. In a responding press release, however, the state’s Department of Public Service (which represents the interests of utility customers in cases brought before the Public Service Board) cautioned, “Past experience shows Entergy cannot be taken at its word.”

In a daunting struggle that pits 600,000 Vermonters against the US government, the nuclear industry, and the NRC, the state attorney general vowed to appeal Judge Murtha’s decision—all the way to the US Supreme Court, if necessary.

“People don’t trust the NRC,” Bob Audette, a reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer told a film crew from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). “They think it’s the lapdog of the industry. They think it’s there basically to affirm everything the industry does. It’s too cozy with the industry.”

In another interview with the CIR, Anthony Roisman, a legal consultant for New York and Vermont, expressed his concerns with the NRC: “This regulatory agency does not regulate effectively. And until it does, there is no way that the public can have any confidence that plants, whether they are licensed or re-licensed, won’t have some catastrophic event. No one will benefit from a post-catastrophic-event hand-wringing that says, ‘Oh we should have done this and we’ll do better next time.’ The consequences are unimaginable.”

Coming Soon: Nuclear Roulette

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Energy is one of the biggest problems facing the industrialized human race. In recent years the world has seen a growth in the use of renewable power sources such as wind and solar, but it’s not enough to outpace the rising demand for electricity.

This conundrum has encouraged many to look to nuclear energy. Its proponents say it’s safe, clean, and creates no greenhouse gases — but Nuclear Roulette, a new book by the editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, Gar Smith, says these claims are nonsense. The subtitle says it all, “The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth.”

Nuclear Roulette is available for 25% off this week.

Booklist calls Nuclear Roulette a “thorough, insightful dissection of nuclear power’s weaknesses,” and Kirkus Reviews praises Smith for “lay[ing] out an impressively researched narrative, drawing on facts from a wide range of sources, and mak[ing] a strong case that will be hard for even nuclear-power advocates to dismiss out of hand.”

Nuclear Roulette is a great introduction to the failures of atomic energy, but don’t take our word for it! Listen to author Gar Smith make the argument himself, in a conversation with David Swanson here, and one with natural health advocate Gary Null here.


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