Debate goes nuclear at WCS (3/18/10)

March 18, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

While Vermont lawmakers debate the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a group of Williston Central School students brought the issue to the classroom last week.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
The ‘Green Team’ debaters — (from left) Abby Keim, Arlo Cohen, Chris Mallow and Shana Leonard — plan their strategy of arguing against the re-licensure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Seventh graders from Williston Central School’s Harbor House debated the Vermont Yankee issue last week.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
Seventh grade debaters (back to front) Sadie Casale, Matt Faris, Dan Poodiak and Sarah Bergkvist strategize their case to keep Vermont Yankee open.

A team of Harbor House seventh graders presented the two sides of the Vermont Yankee debate before a group of eighth graders on March 11. In two groups of four, the seventh graders made arguments as to why the state should renew Vermont Yankee’s operating license, and why the plant should be shut down due to environmental concerns.

Teacher Deb McConnell said she chose the nuclear power topic because of its timeliness and the fact that the issue would require students to do a lot of research.

“I knew this was a subject they knew little about,” McConnell said.

The nearly 40-year-old nuclear plant, located in Vernon, has been the subject of much concern for state and local officials. In recent months, the plant’s operator, Entergy Corp., made several misleading statements to Vermont officials under oath. Vermont whistleblowers also discovered evidence of tritium leaking from aging pipes into the area’s groundwater. Tritium is a radioactive compound used in nuclear facilities.

The plant’s license with the state expires in March 2012, but the Vermont Senate voted against renewal in February. Entergy, however, continues to plead its case for further legislative review.

One by one, the seventh-grade debaters took to the podium last Thursday to argue their points. Students had learned only a few days earlier, following a random drawing, which side they would be on.

On the side supporting the continuation of plant operations, students cited the effect the closure would have on more than 600 employees, as well as businesses in neighboring communities.

“The ripple effect of taking 1,000 jobs out of the workforce is far greater than the 650 who would lose their jobs,” Sadie Casale said.

But the debaters opposing Vermont Yankee’s re-licensure, calling themselves the “Green Team” and wearing green apparel, said the environmental risks are too great to keep the plant operating. Chris Mallow said the tritium leak is enough of a concern, even if it was localized to the plant’s grounds.

“The tritium didn’t reach the Connecticut River, but what about next time?” Mallow said.

McConnell said part of the assignment required students to interview an adult on the subject to get their opinion. Students also had to delegate topics for each debater and then practice their presentations.

Students also had to argue for solutions. Matt Faris argued that keeping Vermont Yankee running would be cheaper for the future and solve part of the state’s financial crisis.

“This technology is already readily available,” Faris said. “You don’t need hundreds, or thousands or even millions of dollars developing new technology.”

Abby Keim said alternative energy sources are the way to go, stating future Vermonters will reap the benefits of investing now.

“Solar and wind have been known to pay off more in the long run,” Keim said. “So if Vermont wants to live up to its name — the Green Mountain State — we don’t need nuclear energy.”

For many involved in the debates, this was the first time they had to step in front of a class of peers to argue a point. Some became invested in their roles, such as Shana Leonard, who said she learned a lot about wind and solar power.

Dan Poodiak discovered that the more he learned, the more his opinion clashed with the side of the debate he was assigned to argue.

“It was hard to do because I think (Vermont Yankee) should be shut down,” said Poodiak, who argued in class to keep the plant in operation.

In the end, McConnell and the faculty judges ruled in favor of the Green Team, awarding them the win in the debate.