March 28th, 2011

Bulletin From the Ministry of Truth: Entergy Spokesman Refines New Yankee Speak, Leading to Doubleplusgood Newthink

by Philip Baruth

The best part of George Orwell’s 1984 isn’t what’s behind the door of Room 101 (hint: rats) or the doomed love affair between Winston and his Junior Anti-Sex League sweetie. No, the best part of 1984 has always been the Appendix, titled “The Principles of Newspeak.” Because that’s where Orwell digs into the actual, operational linguistic methods behind Party-approved language, and the way it gradually but inevitably limits the user to Party-approved thought.

“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

Have we made the connection between Newspeak and the PR flaks Entergy employs to massage the truth on a daily basis? We certainly have. Back in 2007, we called their dialect New Yankee Speak.

But there’s fresh reason to revisit that parallel. Among the slew of interviews Arnie Gundersen has given since the debacle in Japan, one last week stands out — not so much for what Arnie had to say, but for what Entergy spokesman Larry Smith had to say in return. The show is PRI’s Living on Earth, the reporter is Jeff Young, and the level of obfuscation is astounding:

YOUNG: Tell me about safety incidents you’ve had at Vermont Yankee - what’s gone wrong here?

SMITH: We’ve had no safety incidents at Vermont Yankee.

Now to you and to me, there’s a level of the outrageous here that brings just a tang of bile to the back of the throat. Smith is not allowing himself a hedge or an obscure reference to the truth; he’s stating as fact that which is not fact, and he’s clearly ready simply to brazen it out.

YOUNG: Maybe this is a matter of semantics, but there was a collapse of a cooling tower, correct?

SMITH: That’s right and that’s industrial safety, and that happened in 2007. Put it into perspective. You’re talking about a 20- ft section of a 460-foot tower, that’s what collapsed.

Smith isn’t breaking new ground here: Rob Williams, his predecessor, made something of a career out of declaring anything unrelated to the inner fuel core therefore unrelated to safety itself. But notice here the way Smith models what can only be called the Newspeak thought process, if that phase isn’t inherently contradictory. He feigns an inability even to connect the word “safety” to the concept of collapsing plant infrastructure. What you have, in effect, are two Americans speaking two distinct languages.

YOUNG: There was a transformer fire?

SMITH: In 2004. The transformer was not on fire, it was the bus duct on top of it, but that can happen at any power plant.

Again, the concept of a “transformer fire” cannot be expressed in New Yankee Speak; therefore, a speaker must separate the flaming element from the rest of the transformer, and rename it. And of course, a “bus duct” sounds much smaller and less essential. For all we know, bus ducts function more efficiently while on fire. Maybe, like tonsils, we’d get along better without all the bus ducts.

YOUNG: Also the manner in which information has come to light has led some people to express to me a lack of confidence that they’re getting open communication. For example, how did the tritium leak, how did that come to light?

SMITH: It came to light because industry, in 2007, undertook a voluntary groundwater protection program and put in monitoring wells. We identified tritium and the same day we told NRC and we told the state of Vermont. So I don’t know what you mean about not being transparent or not being straightforward.

YOUNG: There was a denial that the pipe system existed and only after persistence by a watchdog did your company admit, oh yes there’ a pipe system and oh, by the way, it’s leaking.

SMITH: Well, I can tell you we did a lousy job providing testimony to the Vermont Public Service Board on the extent of our pipes, but we have a lot of support in the state of Vermont. We certainly have a lot of support from this community, the host community, for the continued operation of Vermont Yankee and this station.

Yes, Smith creates an entire revisionist fable here about Entergy’s disclosures around tritium. In this thumbnail history, Entergy couldn’t sleep nights until it had answered once and for all, damn it, whether tritium was escaping into the groundwater; so they dug wells when no one thought to compel them, they reported their results though no one had asked them to do so, and they accomplished this disclosure before the sun had set on the day radioactivity was discovered.

But what’s more interesting to VDB? Is it Smith’s odd phrase “host community,” which brings to mind nothing so much as parasites like lamprey and ringworm?

No, it’s the way that Smith holds ideas and concepts out of the discussion until such time as the reporter demands that they be inserted. Smith knows, knows in the deepest part of his gut, that this interview is eventually Going There: on safety, on cooling tower and transformer fire, on corporate lies related to underground piping.

But in each case Smith issues an absolute New Yankee Speak denial, not just as a means of steering the interview but of modeling an entirely distinct mode of thought. He concedes nothing unless forced, and in that way “lying” becomes “doing a lousy job” of testifying before the Legislature. But for the most part, he reacts like a Parisian defending French in an argument with an Englishman: amused, defensive, disdainful, but never less than fully confident in the world as his language paints it.

What does it tell us that in 2011 Entergy’s corporate spokesman has opted neither to compromise nor to translate? What does it say that Smith is now addressing the national media determined not to concede mistakes or to demonstrate linguistic good faith?

Nothing good, friends. It has the feel of early legal hostilities, this insistence on different histories and languages and the world-views they conjure.

Only one of these world-views will eventually prevail.

In one, Yankee is decommissioned on schedule in 2012. In the other, VDB is tried and found doubleplus guilty of Oldthink and unbellyfeeling Ingsoc.

And that, of course, is where the rats come in.

It’s tempting to think, finally, that there’s some deep irony in the fact that Orwell’s hero and Entergy’s latest flak share the name Smith. But there’s not. After all, Winston Smith doesn’t finish the book in anything resembling heroic fashion.

No, once he eventually leaves Room 101, secure in the knowledge that two plus two equals five, Winston Smith actually serves as a pretty decent PR spokesman himself.

March 25th, 2011

Pre-K Update: Wind At Our Backs (Now With Unexpected Well-Water Update!)

by Philip Baruth

Quick update on S.53, our Education Committee bill lifting the caps on Pre-K enrollment statewide. The bill has now cleared three committees — Education, Finance, and Appropriations — and will be reported out this morning on the Senate floor if all goes well. The reporter of the bill? VDB. Keep us in your thoughts right around noon time.

the harvest writers workshop

And assuming the bill clears the Senate, which looks likely, transfer those thoughts to House super-Rep Joey Donovan, because the bill will head to House Education thereafter. Could it be in better hands than Joey’s? Not hardly, folks.

So for those who support expanding early education: we got the wind at our backs on this one. Assuming we don’t sink the ship inadvertantly today, which is always a concern. More as details warrant.

Late Update, 1:55 pm:

Pre-K bill bumped by abnormally long discussion of arsenic in well-water, and what, if anything, to do about it. Curses. All right: transfer positive energy to Tuesday, 10:00.

We will, eventually, get her done.

March 25th, 2011

Danziger’s Got Your Friday Right Here

by Philip Baruth

March 23rd, 2011

Salmon’s Palin Moment: Seeking Stability At The Auditor’s Office By Vacating Same

by Philip Baruth

Lord knows we try here at VDB to be a sober and cautious observer of the political scene, measured, magisterial even in our detachment. Far be it from us either to jump, or to prematurely fire, a gun of any sort. And yet, what to do when faced with noteworthy gun-jumping by prominent politicians? Should we avoid comment and allow the comic moment to pass, thus rendering ourselves inert at best, comedically impotent at worst?

Perish the thought. What the hell are we talking about? Auditor Tom Salmon, folks, now in the process of baiting Bernie Sanders about a run for the US Senate.

As you know, Salmon waited only weeks after re-election to announce that he would not seek re-election. And having announced an exploratory committee, he’s now publicly demanding a spending cap from Bernie’s camp, which is odd coming from someone merely exploring a run. Should a sitting US Senator negotiate a spending cap with a guy who won’t say he’s running and who tells national media that such a run might, in fact, be “a waste of his talents”? In two words, probably not.

An odd non-roll-out, to say the least, the oddest part of which is the interview Salmon gave to WCAX about his non-intentions. Give it a listen, because like most Salmon dialogues, it’s strangely disconnected, full of unpredictable pauses and orphaned phrases.

But the very oddest moment of that odd interview? Salmon’s up-is-down answer to a question about leaving the Auditor’s office. We rush to quote, because it’s a thing of beauty:

WCAX Anchor: You’re not running for Auditor, you’ve said you’re considering a run for higher office . . . Mr. Salmon, are you running for US Senate or Vermont Governor?

Salmon: Well, as I had said before, the first thing was that I was not running for re-election, and that was mainly for the stabilization of the office — the Auditor’s office is very important to me . . .

Correct VDB if in fact VDB is wrong, but it sounds as though the Auditor is seeking to stabilize the Auditor’s office primarily by removing himself from the top of the organizational chart. A novel strategy, but not unprecedented: you’ll remember Sarah Palin “progressed Alaska” by trading in her Governor’s chair for a gig at Fox News.

To each his or her own. Far be it from VDB to raise an eyebrow. Wicked far.

March 22nd, 2011

VDB Receives Hundreds of Petitions Seeking To Overturn Citizens United

by Philip Baruth

So some years back began this thing that many other organizations now also do: they create online petitions and then deliver those petitions physically to elected officials, and ask collectively for action. I’ve filled out a few in my day, a sort of bloodless process that I’ve always known in some part of me would have some small theoretical impact, but it was hard to really feel the truth of that. Why? Because digital technology can be so alienating and compartmentalizing, and it can remove the feeling of physical togetherness that 3D protesting creates.

But today, for the first time, I had someone deliver a stack of MoveOn petitions to me. And I have to say, it was a surprisingly moving experience. Partially because the bearer of the petitions was Andy Grayson, who, along with her husband Woody, helped me get elected. Partially because the long list of hundreds of names represents people who think exactly the way I think on the issue of corporate personhood — which is to say, I want to roll it back, all the way back.

But it was moving also partially because the petitions come with small messages from most people who sign, and a lot of them I knew and many I didn’t, but all the signers took the time to write, and to stand up for the idea that elections should not be awash in corporate dollars.

Here’s the statement at the top of the petitions: “Corporations aren’t people and shouldn’t be able to corrupt our democracy. We need as many state legislatures as possible to get behind the call for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United ruling.”

Short, to the point, and truer word never spoken.

Thanks, Moveon types. You made my day. And whenever this issue comes before the Vermont Senate, I promise you that I’ll make yours.

March 21st, 2011

Legend of the Gundersens, Talk-Radio Edition: Rush Limbaugh, Once Hailed As “Big Fat Idiot,” Still Pretty Much All Three (Now With Hot Vernon Vigil Update!)

by Philip Baruth

Got a call from PRI (Public Radio International) the other day, a show called “Living On Earth,” a particular VDB favorite. The reporter wanted to know if it was a good time to ask an important question about Vermont Yankee. Then came the sound of papers rustling, and the reporter asked solemnly, “Do you have Arnie Gundersen’s email address?” And that, of course, was the question.

Post-Japan, everyone wants Gundersen’s number, because our reactor down in Vernon is the same make and generation as those melting down across the Pacific. And Arnie has called every major debacle at Vermont Yankee over the last six years, one after the other after the other. Collapsing cooling tower? Check. Underground piping, both existence of and tritium pluming from? Double check.

Since the Japanese tsunami, Gundersen and his wife Maggie have been running a busy ersatz press shop out of their New North End home: local volunteers answering calls, hundreds of press queries piling up via email, and of course Arnie being interviewed by phone, more or less non-stop.

Gratifying, for a couple once dismissed by both the nuclear industry and the mainstream media as doom-sayers from the lunatic fringe.

Still, how do you know if you’ve really made the big time, if you’re really having an impact on the national debate?

Answer: Rush Limbaugh suddenly hates your guts.

better?Strange timing — given that Al Franken delivered the keynote at Saturday night’s Curtis Dinner, and it was Franken who kicked off the liberal Limbaugh counter-attack back in the day with the bestselling Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot — but Rush Limbaugh is doing his best to make Gundersen a Conservative talking point unto himself.

“There’s a guy out there named Arnold Gundersen,” Limbaugh growled to listeners last Thursday.

“He’s not an unbiased expert by any stretch. Google his name: Arnold Gundersen.”

Rush mumbled on about axes to grind and bananas having more radiation naturally than any Japanese plume that might hit California, doing his best to make coverage of the Japanese situation seem biased and partisan and childish.

But you can sense something deeper, if you read through the transcript, a certain very particular peevish quality that has become familiar to Vermonters over the last handful of years: the spectacle of a very wealthy and powerful nuclear booster confronted by the utterly exasperating accuracy of Gundersen’s analysis.

Once it was Ex-Entergy CEO Wayne Leonard choking on his breakfast. Now it’s Rush. But the match-up is equally delicious.

Gorty and Arnie
Arnie, in yellow, left, discusses corporate mendacity with Gorty Baldwin at the Hamburger Summit

Maggie, Hamburger Summit, 2007

How envious is VDB? Once, back in the day, we wrote a novel about Bill Clinton and time-travel, and among the various temporal permutations and historical revisions we had Rush Limbaugh enjoying a secret affair with Mary Matalin. Bantam Books was concerned enough to send the book out for a third legal opinion, and the lawyers eventually signed off, pointing out that anyone who could mistake a time-travel story for reality would need to be one nugget shy of a Happy Meal.

Still, there was the fantasy that Rush would get wind of the story, and attack it on air. What better way to know that you’re fighting the good fight? What better way to demonstrate your essential sanity and true heart to the 95% of the country you couldn’t pay to listen to Rush? What better way to peddle a butt-load of books?

Work it, Arnie. It may take you a while, but you’re eventually going to drive this guy right back to the oxycontin. And VDB is loving it.

Late Update, 10:26 am:

Photos and email descriptions now trickling in from yesterday’s vigil for Japan, held before the gates of Vermont Yankee down in Vernon. The crowd was somewhere between 500 and 600, judging from the various estimates, and that’s 500+ sane, smart good-hearted folks who spent much of that time in silence, honoring the dead across the Pacific. Oh, and a cameraman from Japan’s NHK TV, and a small group of Buddhist drummers. Would have loved to be there.

And a hat-tip of course to NY Times stringer Annie Guyon, who brought her daughter Ellie to the vigil, and then talked said daughter out of the photos below after the fact. Many thanks to you both.

March 18th, 2011

In Solidarity: Vigil, Vernon, Be There

by Philip Baruth

And so we come to the close of a week focused almost exclusively on nuclear concerns, and we end with news of a sort that won’t make breakfasts go down any smoother for Entergy executives down in Louisiana. Apparently some folks intend to express their solidarity with the Japanese by gathering outside the reactor down in Vernon, and apparently those same folks will be impolite enough to point out that the nuclear technology in use in both spots on the globe is roughly the same. To be a fly on the wall. — PB


As a public expression of solidarity with the thousands of Japanese workers and residents affected by the still worsening nuclear disaster in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, there will be a solemn, peaceful vigil in front of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant on Governor Hunt Road in Vernon, Vermont, this Sunday, March 20, at 1:00 pm.

“We who live in the shadow of Vermont Yankee regard the people living near the Fukushima reactors as our sister reactor communities,” said Deb Katz, executive director of Citizens Awareness Network. “Their suffering is breaking our hearts, and it’s a suffering which, given the long-lasting effects of the radioactivity spewing from these melting-down reactors, could continue for many years – and is unacceptable.”

New England Coalition trustee Leslie Staudinger said, “Our compassion for the nuclear plant workers and Japanese families in the evacuation zones is deep and heartfelt. Under these circumstances, our sadness moves us to act beyond the Coalition’s usual role as legal and scientific advocates and educators.”

In addition to expressing concern for the suffering of the Japanese people, the vigilers will continue calling for the closure of Vermont Yankee, a 39-year-old, accident-plagued facility of the same or very similar age and design (Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor made by General Electric) as the failed nuclear reactors in Japan.

“If this could happen in Japan, with all its technological sophistication and disaster preparedness,” said Nancy Braus of the Safe & Green Campaign, “what unexpected event might overtake the alleged safeguards we’re told are protecting Vermont Yankee?”

Vigil organizers have suggested that those who plan to attend wear black, bring a sign or banner in keeping with the purpose of the vigil, and park in the parking lot of the Vernon Elementary School across from the plant. All are welcome.

The vigil is being sponsored by the Safe & Green Campaign, Citizens Awareness Network, and the New England Coalition.

March 16th, 2011

The New Operative Question Post-Japan

by Philip Baruth

Without approval from the Legislature for a license re-extension, Entergy’s last, best hope for continuing to operate Vermont Yankee was the Good Neighbor gambit: a charm offensive, backed by ubiquitous but easygoing PR, depicting the company as a hard-working, rule-following corporate citizen. Granted, it was always going to be a heavy lift to maintain this highly burnished image while still fighting the State of Vermont in court over jurisdiction in the re-licensing matter. But imagine now, post-Japan — where reactors are at this writing still exploding, melting down and otherwise going rogue — imagine now that Entergy, which operates a plant of the same make and generation as those disintegrating in Japan, stiff-arms the Legislature and insists on continuing operations over the clear statutory objection of the State Senate? Ever have a neighbor like that?

March 11th, 2011

Update On That Free Press Yankee Story

by Philip Baruth

So we promised yesterday to give a more detailed update on the NRC/Yankee story today, and far be it from VDB to break a promise. What we have to offer is more in the way of dribs and drabs and impressions, but let the compositional chips fall where they may. Spent a good part of yesterday in the Statehouse, asking the opinion of those typically in the know: did they think the Free Press story on potentially imminent NRC relicensure of VY was fresh cause for worry? To a person, they were unperturbed. Notably so.

vermont yankee

Why? Their take matched our initial read of yesterday morning, that this was entirely predictable, the standard move in the Federal/corporate chess-game. The NRC, in its history, has never refused to relicense a plant. No nuclear owner, so far as VDB has been able to find, has ever been visited with pangs of conscience over radioactive leaks or burning transformers or collapsing water towers.

Therefore, it was a foregone conclusion that the NRC would move to relicense, and no real surprise that the move might be timed to change the atmosphere in the Vermont Senate around a revote.

Where does that leave us? Our delegation and our Governor both issued statements stressing the authority of the Senate finally to decide the matter. The key Delegation nugget: “We believe that Entergy should respect and abide by Vermont’s laws, which require approval from the Vermont Legislature, and then the Vermont Public Service Board, for the plant to continue to operate beyond 2012.”

Key Shummy nugget: “Today’s vote from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not unexpected, and does not change the fact that Vermont Yankee still needs approval from the state to continue operating beyond its 2012 license expiration. I am pleased that the NRC is reaffirming Vermont’s authority to determine the plant’s future.”

Would the NRC agree with the Governor’s take on their position? Doubtful. Still, good to have all our top officials putting on their game faces, because we will all need them sooner rather than later: Entergy will either use the NRC’s decision, or their pique at the State’s refusal to relicense, or both, to justify a full-bore lawsuit around the issue in the coming months. Assuming that the bill introduced into the Senate last week — which would strip the State of authority in the matter — dies on the vine, then every authoritative institution in Vermont will be on one very clear page about the state’s authority, and the need to defend it in court.

Which takes us, inexorably, to the Attorney General’s office. Be nice to have a press release from the AG standing four-square with the Governor, the Congressional types, and the Senate. Be real nice.

But at least one group isn’t waiting around: the New England Coalition, which has had pretty good luck over the last five years grinding down the gears of the Entergy machine, filed a Motion to Stay with the NRC this morning, arguing that Entergy’s amendments to their license application require either new hearings or the opening of hearing records sealed over a year ago. And NRC approval must wait as a result.

Brilliant. And a lesson to the rest of us: the worst thing we can do at this point is to act as though the tactics that worked so well over the last five years are no longer necessary. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Game still very much on.

March 10th, 2011

Shumlin, Palin Rub Huff Po Shoulders

by Philip Baruth

Vermont’s new Governor has already broken into the national spotlight several times, which, on balance, bodes well for the future. Why on balance? Because the coverage Shumlin’s getting on the Huffington Post today is fairly brutal. The story is slugged, “Vermont Governor Back From Caribbean, Defends Secrecy,” two dings in one. Could have been worse, of course, had Huff Po gone with something like “Defends Secrecy, Use of Unemployed Dominicans as Human Beach Umbrella.” Still, Shummy placed above the Palin story du jour, so there’s that, for silver lining types.

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