Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 131–142

The role of media actors in reframing the media discourse in the decision to reject relicensing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant

Authors

    • Transportation Research Center & Community Development and Applied EconomicsUniversity of Vermont
  • Jonathan Maddison
    • Farrell HallUniversity of Vermont
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s13412-011-0066-4

Cite this article as:
Watts, R. & Maddison, J. J Environ Stud Sci (2012) 2: 131. doi:10.1007/s13412-011-0066-4
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Abstract

This paper examines 8 years of news media discourse on the operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant leading up to a 2010 vote by Vermont legislators to reject relicensing the facility. Nuclear power license decisions are usually solely under the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; but Vermont legislators required the facility to also seek approval from the Vermont Legislature, presenting a unique case where state legislators have a direct vote on a nuclear power plant. Over the 8 years of the case study, we find that opposition narratives highlighting an aging, unsafe facility managed by an untrustworthy corporation increased while pro-Vermont Yankee narratives of reliable energy, technical competence, and economic progress decreased. We analyze the changes in the media discourse through examining changes in media frames, the media actors, their sponsorship activities, and the narrative integrity of the frames. These findings are instructive in understanding the factors contributing to changes in the media culture around news coverage of nuclear power.

Keywords

Nuclear powerMedia discourseVermont

The role of media actors in reframing a public debate on relicensing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant

In early 2010, the Vermont Legislature rejected extending the license of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a plant that has provided on average about 30% of the state’s electricity since 1973. The legislature’s move in 2010 was at odds with earlier expectations that the plant would be relicensed (Galbraith 2008; Klein, personal communication). Relicensing decisions are the purview of the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, in Vermont, the plant’s owner agreed to also seek state review giving the Vermont Legislature unique authority in the decision-making process. We seek to understand here how a plant that was seen as likely to be relicensed was rejected by state political leaders.

Generating electricity from nuclear power is a contested issue in the USA—an issue that will be only more contested in the context of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan (Cooper and Sussman 2011; Palfreman 2006). In this study, we focus on one aspect of the nuclear power debate, decisions to extend operating licenses at existing plants in the USA. Since 2000, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved operating license extensions for 71 nuclear reactors in the USA. An additional thirty-two operating licenses are either presently under review or have filed notice with the NRC, indicating that debates over license extension decisions will continue at the NRC and in the states that host these plants (Nuclear Energy Institute 2011; United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission 2011).

To examine the Vermont Legislature’s 2010 vote to reject Vermont Yankee, we analyze changes in the media discourse. In particular, we focus our attention on the role of policy actors, their frame sponsorship activities, and the narrative integrity of the frames they promote. The media discourse provides a window into a knowledge construction process that can parallel changes in public opinion and policy outcomes (Gamson and Modigliani 1989; Iyengar 1990; McCombs and Shaw 1972; Steensland 2008). The media is a key resource from which individuals draw meaning about policy debates, as well as a forum where the principle actors in these debates appear (Carragee and Roefs 2004; Gamson 1992, 2005). In this case study, we examine the relationship between the media and policy actors in which policy actors utilize unfolding events to influence media discourse and the media discourse in turn influences policy actors’ actions and public opinion.

A short history of Vermont Yankee and the state’s decision to reject the license extension request

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has been a fixture of Vermont’s electric power landscape since it started operating in 1972, providing approximately one third of the state’s electricity for almost 40 years (Vermont Department of Public Service 1996). The plant was built and operated by a group of regional utilities, led by two Vermont utilities, until its sale to Entergy in 2002. Located on the banks of the Connecticut River, in the southeast corner of Vermont, the plant is more than 100 miles from the state’s capitol and 140 miles from the state’s most populated county. The plant is the state’s fifth largest private employer with 620 full-time workers, hundreds of temporary employees, contributing more than $15 million annually in state and local taxes (Entergy 2011a).

In the early 2000s, the Vermont utility owners put the plant up for sale due to concerns about the complexity of managing a nuclear power plant and the future uncertainty involved in closing the plant and paying the decommissioning costs (Dutton, personal communication; Young, personal communication). In 2002, Entergy Nuclear, a subsidiary of the Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation, purchased the plant for $180 million. Entergy is a large diversified energy-holding company with $11 billion in sales and 15,000 employees (Entergy 2011a). Entergy Nuclear is the second largest nuclear generator in the USA, operating 13 reactors and ten nuclear power plants in eight states. In the 2000s, Entergy bought five nuclear power plants, mostly in the northeast, operating them as for-profit merchant power plants, with plant output sold directly to utilities or into wholesale power markets (Entergy 2011b).

When Entergy purchased Vermont Yankee, company officials made it clear that their intention was to file for a license renewal to operate the plant beyond its March 2012 scheduled closing date. License extensions for nuclear power plants fall under the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, Entergy also agreed to seek a permit from the Vermont Public Service Board to operate the plant beyond 2012, signing an agreement with state regulators and testifying under oath to that intention (Vermont Public Service Board 2002). Through this agreement, Entergy committed to state oversight in the license extension process. Entergy also negotiated a 10-year contract to sell a portion of the plant’s output to the Vermont utilities at a rate less than what the utilities would have expected to pay if they retained ownership—reducing electric rates for most Vermonters (Vermont Public Service Board 2002). State regulators, electric utilities, and political leaders welcomed the sale (Robinson 2002).

During the 8 years the company owned the plant, Entergy won a series of legislative and regulatory approvals to increase the plant’s capacity by 20% (2005), to store radioactive waste in concrete casks outside of the plant (2006) and rejected legislative attempts to increase plant taxes to add money to the decommissioning fund (2008, 2009) (Gram 2006a, b; 2008a, b, c, d, e, f, g; 2009).

In January 2006, Entergy filed for the 20-year license extension with the NRC. In February 2008, as it had agreed to do, Entergy also filed a license extension request with the Vermont Public Service Board—the state agency charged with regulating electric utilities.

The story described here took an added twist in 2006 when the Vermont State Legislature required a legislative vote before state regulators could finish reviewing the license extension request. The bill passed the Vermont House of Representatives 130–0 and the Vermont Senate 20–6 and was signed into law by Republican Governor James Douglas. At the time, Entergy opposed the bill, calling it “redundant” but once approved Entergy publicly supported the legislation (Gram 2006a, b; Associated Press 2006). Most observers thought Entergy would eventually win legislative approval but that legislators might extract additional financial concessions (Dostis, personal communication; Dutton, personal communication; Klein, personal communication). Then, Vermont Senate President Peter Welch characterized the vote this way: “giving the Legislature authority over the relicensing might give lawmakers clout to demand an additional return from Vermont Yankee, such as an extension of the inexpensive power now provided to the state” (Gram 2006a, b).

Despite efforts by Governor Douglas and Entergy’s supporters, the legislature did not schedule a vote in the 2008 and 2009 legislative sessions (usually January into May). In January 2010, Governor Douglas again urged legislative leaders to allow the Public Service Board to make the decision (Douglas 2010). The NRC had already signaled that it was likely to award the permit (Gram 2008a, b, c, d, e, f, g). Two days after Douglas’s speech to legislators, Entergy announced a leaking radioactive substance, tritium, in underground pipes at the facility. The leak became front-page news, and news coverage only increased as legislators discovered Entergy officials had provided misleading testimony to state regulators on the existence of the underground pipes. At the end of January, Entergy announced the removal of the plant’s top executive and disciplinary actions against four other executives (Gram 2010a, b, c, d, e, f). Three weeks later, the Vermont State Senate voted 26–4 against forwarding the relicensing application to the Vermont Public Service Board, essentially requiring the plant to close in March 2012 (Gram 2010a, b, c, d, e, f).

Although the controversy swirling around the plant in January and February contributed to the plant’s rejection, we argue that examining changes in the media discourse over time provides a more complete understanding of the 2010 policy decision. We illustrate how plant opponents “reframed” the media discourse, capitalizing on unfolding events to challenge the narrative integrity of Entergy’s story of technical competence and economic progress. We combine our analysis of changes in media frames with an analysis of the prominence of policy actors and the prominence of their preferred frames. We seek to show how changes in the media discourse, influenced by the policy actors, in turn influence the policy actors, contributing to the eventual rejection of the plant by state legislators.

Methods

This study relies on two principle methods, interviews with key informants and an analysis of 346 news articles from the Associated Press State & Local Wire service. The lead researcher interviewed 25 case study participants and observers from state agencies, environmental interest groups, and the news media. We chose interviewees based on their ability to provide core understandings and the central role that many of them played in the case study. We used a semi-structured interview format, focused on understanding the events leading up to the Vermont Senate’s 2010 vote. Interviews were taped and transcribed and read multiple times by the lead researcher to identify key themes (Patton 2002).

The second part of our analysis relies on 346 Associated Press news stories written between January 2003 and 1 March 2010 collected from the Lexis-Nexis database. News stories selected for analysis had to contain three or more sentences directly related to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, be longer than 200 words and originate from within Vermont. We tested a variety of keyword search terms finding that “Vermont Yankee” captured all related articles. We chose the time period 2003 to 2010 to coincide with the time the plant operated under the ownership of the Entergy Nuclear Power Corporation. The number of news articles ranged between 41 and 54 annually for 2003 to 2008, declined to 22 in 2009, and increased to 22 for the first 2 months of 2010 leading up the Vermont Senate vote. Examining the articles over time allows us to examine changes in the media discourse.

We chose the Associated Press because of the norms of newspaper reporting the wire service represents, e.g., “objectivity” and “balance” (Tuchman 1978). The widespread use of the Associated Press by Vermont newspapers (Gram, personal communication), other media outlets, and policymakers makes it an acceptable measure of the mass media information available to policymakers and the general public (Fan and Holway 1994; Fan and Tims 1989). The Associated Press submits stories written by their own staff of Vermont-based reporters and recirculates news stories from member newspapers. Many of the recirculated stories originated with the Brattleboro Reformer, a paper published within ten miles of the plant. Of the Associated Press stories, about 80% were written by the AP’s veteran news reporter, Dave Gram.

Within this set of news articles, we coded every occurrence of a quote or a paraphrase that was attributed to a policy actor by the journalist. We use the term sponsor to refer to the policy actors promoting their preferred frames (Carragee and Roefs 2004; Gamson 2005).We grouped sponsors into four categories: government officials (federal, state, and town), legislators (federal and state), environmental interest groups, and Vermont Yankee and its allies (business interest groups and other electric utility companies). The reporters attributed comments to sponsors 1,746 times in the 346 articles analyzed.

In addition to coding for sponsors, we coded each sponsor citation for their dominant frame. We conceptualize frames as interpretive packages that define problems, provide causal analysis, and promote particular solutions (Entman 2007; Gamson and Modigliani 1989; Gamson 2005). We identified six frames that clearly conveyed a position for or against the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and the proposed license extension. The six frames draw from previous research that has identified frames in nuclear power and energy policy discourse (Gamson 1992; Greenberg 2005; Jasper 1997). In frame attributions not cited to sponsors, we coded as journalist frame to trace the presence of the reporters in the evolving media discourse. Including journalist frames, we coded 707 frames in the media coverage.

We used Krippendorf’s coefficient to measure intercoder reliability (Krippendorff 1980). The second author coded a random sample of 15% of sponsor statements from the population to assess intercoder reliability. Krippendorf’s coefficient was 0.81 for frames and 0.91 for sponsors, meeting the standards for intercoder reliability (Riffe et al. 2005).

Media frames as a tool to understand policy outcomes

Why use media analysis to understand policy debates? The mass media is an important forum where sponsors compete with each other to gain legitimacy and construct core meanings about societal issues (Carragee and Roefs 2004; Gamson 2005; Carragee and Ryan 1998). Individuals and policymakers draw on the general audience media as a publicly available source of information for individual sense-making. How the media influences individual sense-making is an area of much debate (Scheufele 1999) but there is agreement that the media is a critical forum for policy actors attempting to influence policy outcomes (Gamson 2005). Sponsors can “win” a media contest by institutionalizing interpretations in the media that are beneficial to their interests and detrimental to opposing sponsors (Entman 2003) increasing their chance at achieving desirable policy outcomes (Callaghan and Schnell 2001; Entman 2003). To examine the media contest and construction of meaning about Vermont Yankee, we measure the prominence of sponsors in the media discourse in tandem with the prominence of the sponsors’ preferred frames (Steensland 2008; Gamson 2005).1

Researchers have found that policy elites, often government and industry sponsors, dominate domestic policy debates (Callaghan and Schnell 2001; Tuchman 1978). News reporters and their editors “index” their stories to the prevailing elite policy discourse, confining the conversation to the current level of the debate among those sponsors (Bennett 1990). For journalists, indexing functions to capture the range of debate within the government and other official circles in an attempt to balance media coverage and inform readers about policy (Bennett 1990). While journalistic norms of objectivity and balance require opposition voices to be included, their appearance can be marginalized if there is little or no official support for their position (Gitlin 1980; Tuchman 1978). These “indexing” patterns can be disrupted by episodic events, and through the skill of outside organizations to take advantage of these events and “reframe” the narrative (Iyengar 1990; Gamson and Modigliani 1989; Greenberg 2005; Benford and Snow 2000; Tuchman 1978; Throgmorton 1996). We build on this research by illustrating the use of episodic events by plant opponents to disrupt the plant owners’ core narrative of technical competence and economic progress.

Examining the frames embedded in the news stories illustrates which policy actors are achieving success in promoting their chosen interpretations (Entman 2003; Gamson and Modigliani 1989; Gamson 1992; Iyengar 1990; Scheufele 1999; Steensland 2008). Framing is the process of collecting pieces of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that connects those pieces to promote a particular interpretation. From a social constructionist perspective, events and activities can embody multiple meanings and definitions and be interpreted in multiple ways (Albrecht and Amey 1999; Greider and Garkovich 1994). How issues are framed is a “powerful form of social control” that can focus policy debates and constrain and circumscribe the policy outcomes that emerge (Iyengar 1990). In this study, examining the change in news frames over time illustrates the changing policy debate and the change in policy outcomes.

This work builds on previous research examining news and public discourse around nuclear power (Benford 1993; Eckstein 1997; Gamson and Modigliani 1989; Gamson 1992; Jasper 1997; Palfreman 2006; Throgmorton 1996; Winner 1986). Here, we particularly draw from the work of Gamson and Modigliani (1989) who examined the careers of interpretive packages or frames on nuclear power between 1945 and 1989. They found that the only frame available in the media discourse until the 1970s was an economic progress package linking nuclear power to economic growth. Prior to the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, other frames began to appear, an energy independence frame that stressed the role of nuclear power in addressing the dependence on other countries for fuel, a soft paths frame arguing for lower impact, decentralized energy sources, a not cost effective frame that criticized the increasing cost of building nuclear power plants, a runaway frame that raised the concerns of nuclear power as unsafe and out of control, and lastly a public accountability frame promoted by Ralph Nader’s Critical Mass organization critical of the industry and its regulators. Following Three Mile Island and, again the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the runaway frame spiked, but unfavorable public opinion towards nuclear power had already started to grow. The authors argue that the availability of frames skeptical of nuclear power can explain these changes in public opinion prior to the Three Mile Island accident (Gamson and Modigliani 1989). We relied on this previous research to develop the frames reviewed in this study.

Another means to understand how actors achieve success is to examine the frame’s narrative integrity to understand why certain frames may resonate more than others. A frame has to have coherence, be able to “hang together”, and be capable of explaining unfolding events (Fisher 1987; Gamson 2005; Throgmorton 1996). Frames are social constructs embedded in cultural contexts (Gamson 1992); however, they also draw meaning and legitimacy from external events. A frame that fits with unfolding events is strengthened while a poor narrative fit undercuts the integrity of the frame (Gamson 2005; Greenberg 2005; Reese 2007; Benford and Snow 2000). In a case study of nuclear power plant decision-making in Chicago, Throgmorton (1996) found that the electric utility’s preferred frame of progress and technical competence faltered as the utility repeatedly missed plant delivery dates and costs ballooned—undercutting the narrative integrity of the utility’s story. We argue here that the narrative integrity of Entergy’s core frames also stumbled in the context of unfolding events. Opponents capitalized on those events in the media discourse, leading to changes in the discourse and ultimately to changes in the policy outcome.

Findings

Frames in the media discourse

Our analysis shows that between 2003 and 2010, media frames and sponsor attributions in opposition to the plant increased. Opponents capitalized on plant operational issues and Entergy’s public missteps to portray an untrustworthy company managing an unsafe power plant. Changes in the media discourse illustrated by these changing frames, influenced by the policy actors, in turn influenced the policy actors and public opinion contributing to the eventual rejection of the plant by state legislators in 2010. To illustrate these changing frames over time, this study examines 8 years of media discourse. We start with a short description of the frames and summarize their appearance. We then present findings on the narrative integrity of the frames, and then, present information on the change in sponsor citations and changes within individual sponsor groups.

We identified three frames in support of continuing Vermont Yankee’s operation; economic progress which emphasized the value the plant provides to Vermont in terms of low-cost electricity, employment, and as a steady and reliable source of electric power; environmental progress, promoting the environmental attributes, particularly the lower GHG emissions associated with nuclear power; and fair process which underscored the role of independent technical and regulatory third parties such as the NRC and the Vermont Public Service Board in verifying safety and other claims.

The dominant frame promoted by Entergy and the company’s allies was economic progress, as in this sponsor statement: “because of Vermont Yankee’s dependable and low-cost power, Vermonters have the lowest electric rates in the region, approximately 21% lower than elsewhere in New England” Gram (2008a, b, c, d, e, f, g).

The company also promoted an environmental progress frame: “If we replaced Vermont Yankee with the mix (of power sources) in New England, our carbon footprint would increase to something like 320,000 tons, more than 10 times greater than what it is now” (Gram 2007a, b).

Fair process promotes regulatory decision-making processes over legislative and “political” processes as in this citation to Entergy’s Brian Cosgrove: “Legislative action in this case is unnecessary…The Public Service Board process is designed to handle this kind of case, which is highly complex and politically charged” (Gram 2008a, b, c, d, e, f, g).

The two primary frames in opposition to Vermont Yankee’s continued operation we identified are public accountability, stressing the lack of accountability and trustworthiness of the plant’s out-of-state owners and biased federal and state regulatory processes, and runaway, which presents Vermont Yankee as an aging, unsafe nuclear power plant. Issues such as the disposal of nuclear waste, radiation issues, emergency management procedures, warm water discharges into the Connecticut River, equipment failure, and unplanned shutdowns all underscore the runaway frame. A third frame that rarely appeared in the debate, we called alternatives, promoting the concept of cleaner, safer, local, and often decentralized alternatives to the nuclear power plant.

Here is a citizen at a public meeting displaying the runaway frame: “It’s dangerous, and the thing that bothers me most is the terrible nuclear waste that they’re generating every year that’s going to be radioactive for thousands of years,” (Gram 2003).

Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin, who returned to the legislature in 2007, frequently displayed the public accountability frame: “It’s pretty unfortunate when the commissioner of public service becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of Entergy Louisiana. He fights for the raw deal being given Vermonters harder than Entergy” (Gram 2008a, b, c, d, e, f, g).

Figure 1 illustrates that runaway is the dominant opposition frame through the case study time period. However, there is an increase in displays of the public accountability frame, starting in 2007. As public accountability increases, Vermont Yankee’s economic progress frame decreases. Vermont Yankee’s chosen frames of economic progress, environmental progress, and fair process all declined in prominence in 2010 as the story became dominated by the debate about Entergy management practices and safety issues related to the tritium leak.
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Fig. 1

Distribution of frames by percent in Associated Press Vermont Yankee news coverage between 1 January 2003 and 2 March 2010

In 2003, about half of the frames displayed fell evenly between support and opposition to Vermont Yankee. In 2005 and 2006, Vermont Yankee captured the majority. Starting in 2007, opposition frames surpassed pro-Vermont Yankee frames, and by 2010, opposition frames outnumbered support frames more than 2:1 (68% to 31%) (see Fig. 1).

One way to illustrate the changing frames over time in the media discourse is to look at the frames chosen by the newspaper reporters. In 2003 through 2007, reporters’ display of public accountability never topped 8%. In 2008 through 2010, displays of public accountability coded to reporters averaged 36% of all the journalist’s displayed frames.

The use of unfolding events to underscore the narrative integrity of the frames

Both our media analysis and our interviews reveal that between 2003 and 2010, opponents were able to reframe the debate by using unfolding events to underscore the narrative integrity of their preferred frame. Plant supporters and opponents told two competing stories about the plant during the time period of the case study. Supporters of the plant argued that it was a well-managed facility providing safe, reliable, low-cost electricity and was an economic boon to the state. Opponents argued the plant was an aging, unsafe, and unreliable facility managed by an untrustworthy out-of-state corporation motivated by profit.

We highlight two events here to illustrate how opponents used unfolding events to reframe the debate and undercut the narrative integrity of Entergy’s preferred storylines. Interviewees pointed frequently to these two events as key to understanding the Senate’s 2010 vote.

2007 Cooling tower collapse

Vermont Yankee’s cooling towers are not the iconographic towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, but instead a system comprised of 22 60-ft towers, each with a large fan and a series of water holding tanks and pumps and heat exchangers. Depending on the mode the plant is operating in, the time of the year, and conditions set in the plant’s permit, cooled water is discharged back into the river. In August 2007, one of the cooling towers collapsed when an internal support beam gave way. An anonymous worker at the plant emailed a photo of the collapsed tower to the local newspaper and to plant opponents (see Fig. 2).
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Fig. 2

Water-cooling tower collapse photograph taken by an anonymous photographer. www.vermontdailybriefing.com. Accessed 26 Mar 2010

Plant opponents seized on the incident, circulating the photo to news organizations, sending it to policymakers, and posting it on various web sites (Burns, personal communication; Moore, personal communication; Hofmann, personal communication). Over the next 3 years, opponents continued to develop materials and campaign communications leveraging off of the cooling tower collapse (Peterson, personal communication, 2011). For example, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) distributed a brochure with the “collapse” photo displayed in their door-to-door canvass operations in 2008 and 2009. VPIRG and other environmental actors in opposition to the plant used the event to highlight a story of an aging and unreliable nuclear plant (Fig. 3).
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Fig. 3

Postcard distributed by VPIRG in summer 2008 door-to-door canvass. Source: VPIRG

Although the NRC determined the cooling tower collapse to be of “no safety significance”, media reports characterized it differently: “Safety has been a major concern this week. On Tuesday, a huge section of the 50-foot tall housing that surrounds a bank of 11 ‘cells’ in a cooling tower collapsed suddenly in a shower of water, wood, plastic and asbestos, forcing the plant to cut power in half” (Gram 2007a, b). And for the first time since Entergy purchased the plant, news stories focused on the plant’s age. Nine days after the cooling tower collapse, a second incident led to a news story headlined “Is Vermont Yankee Showing Its Age?” The story continued: “Two mishaps within 10 days at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant have given ammunition to its critics, prompted questions from regulators and have the plant’s owners working to reassure the public about its safety” (Gram 2007a, b).

References to the incident occurred frequently in opposition statements and media stories in the following years. The Associated Press cited the cooling tower “collapse” 121 times following the August incident. Journalists also continued to cite the event as an example of an aging facility, leading up the Senate vote in 2010: “Vermont Yankee has been showing its age…at least since 2007, when a cooling tower collapse produced spectacular photos of a jagged, broken, 6-foot-wide pipe spewing thousands of gallons of water onto a pile of rubble below” (Gram 2010a, b, c, d, e, f).

When problems at a second Vermont Yankee cooling tower occurred in July 2008, opponents jumped on the story. In a press conference 2 days after this incident—also cited as non-safety by the NRC—VPIRG’s Director Paul Burns said: “It’s not overstating things to say this plant is falling apart. It needs to be retired.” Added another environmental group leader, “This plant is failing before our very eyes… If these folks can’t catch a water leak, Heaven help us if they have a radiation leak at this plant” (Perron 2008). The incident, and later ones, also spurred a rebroadcasting of the original photo.

Underground vs. buried pipes

A second example illustrating changes in the narrative integrity of the competing core narratives is the news discourse around underground pipes at the facility. For several years, plant opponents and legislators had expressed concerns that Vermont Yankee might have underground pipes that could leak radioactive substances. When the oral testimony started in the license extension proceeding before the Vermont Public Service Board in the spring of 2009, regulators directly asked about underground pipes. Entergy’s lead official on the license application, Vice-President of Nuclear Operations Jay Thayer, was asked, “Does Vermont Yankee have any underground piping that carries radio nuclides?” Thayer responded; “I can do some research on that and get back to you, but I don’t believe there are active piping systems containing contaminated fluids today” (Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP 2010). In a separate testimony and in emails to state officials during the spring and fall of 2009, Entergy officials said the plant did not have underground pipes carrying contaminated materials. On 10 January 2010, just as the 2010 legislative session commenced, Entergy announced they had found tritium in monitoring wells—a leak later traced to underground pipes at the plant. Legislators, environmental groups, and the state’s Republican governor all joined in the subsequent media furor. An investigation later found that Entergy had not deliberately lied, instead plant officials interpreted “underground pipes” to mean pipes buried in direct contact with soil and not pipes below ground but encased in concrete trenches—the source of the contamination (Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP 2010).

Opponents seized on Entergy’s statements as an example of a company that could not be trusted. As VPIRG’s Duane Peterson said; “We played up our message; the plant was old, dangerous and irresponsible. Old and dangerous were underscored by the thing falling apart. Irresponsible was underscored by their lying. So we just kept hammering on them” (Peterson, personal communication).

Changing frame sponsorship in the media discourse

Our analysis demonstrates that the media view of Vermont Yankee moved from seeing the plant as a fixture of Vermont’s electrical system (strongly entwined with the Vermont economy and supported by its political elite) to seeing it as a risky liability; and that this shift in view was crucial to the 2010 vote. In addition to changes in frames, we argue here that changes in the news media sponsors also contributed to the changed outcome. There are three changes that we highlight below: greater prominence of legislators in the news media, changes within legislative actors, and changes within environmental actors although percent attributions to environmental groups remained constant.

Over the 8 years of the study, the most prominent actors were government officials at town, state, and federal agencies (39%), Entergy officials and the company’s allies (29%) followed by legislators (14%), and environmental groups (13%). Citizens (2%) and non-affiliated organizations/independent scientists (3%) barely registered in the debate.

Examining the frames promoted by sponsors shows a strong consistency in positions towards the continued operation of the plant (Fig. 4). Not surprisingly, Entergy and the company’s allies in other Vermont electric companies and business organizations consistently supported the plant (95%) as did government generally (70%). In opposition to the plant, environmental interest groups (99%) and Vermont legislators, including the congressional delegation were also consistent (86%) (see Fig. 5 below). A close review of sponsors indicates two notable changes over the 8-year case study time period—a change in the actors within the environmental group category and an increase in citations to legislators as the 2010 vote approached.
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Fig. 4

Distribution of sponsor citations 2003–2010

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Fig. 5

Number of citations to sponsors in Associated Press Vermont Yankee news coverage between 1 January 2003 and 2 March 2010 and their position on continued operation of the plant. (n = 579)

Environmental groups

Environmental groups in opposition to the plant accounted for, on average, 13% of all quotes and citations in the news coverage each year, ranging from a high of 20% in 2004 to a low of 9% in 2010. However, organizational actors within the environmental group category changed starting in 2007. Since 1971, the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC) based in southern Vermont has led environmental interest group opposition to Vermont Yankee. The organization has pursued a regulatory strategy, focusing resources on intervening in federal and state regulatory processes, with its organizing presence primarily confined to southern Vermont (Gram 2006a, b). Through 2006, the NEC is the most frequently cited opponent to the plant, receiving the majority of the environmental interest group attributions. Starting in 2007, different environmental interest groups joined the discourse, including the Citizens Awareness Network, Greenpeace, and Citizens for a Nuclear Free Vermont. But the most prominent and most frequently cited organization in opposition becomes the VPIRG, a statewide organization headquartered in Montpelier, the state’s capital. Between 2003 and 2006, the NEC received 86% of the attributions cited to an interest group in opposition to Vermont Yankee. In 2007, the two organizations split the citations. By 2009, VPIRG is cited three times as often as NEC.

VPIRG pursued a different approach in its opposition to the power plant. The group eschewed the regulatory process, leaving that to NEC and others, and instead allocated resources to grass-roots organizing, legislative lobbying, and media advocacy (Paul Burns, personal communication). Starting in 2007, organizational resources allocated to opposing Vermont Yankee increased sharply, growing more than fivefold and peaking in the 4-month period leading up to the vote to reject the plant in 2010 (Paul Burns, personal communication). Because of its focus on the regulatory process, the NEC reported no spending on lobbying or legislative activities in 2007 (Vermont Secretary of State 2011). VPIRG, on the other hand, reported spending $86,000 in 2007, $133,000 in 2008, and $274,000 in 2009 and 2010 (Vermont Secretary of State 2011).

To win the legislative vote, these opponents believed that they had to broaden the media debate beyond southern Vermont and underscore issues of public accountability and trust to win legislative votes in areas distant from the plant. As Citizen Awareness Network Director Deb Katz said: “We made the decision that being in the southern part of the state would not win us the vote…. We had to move to north and central Vermont to win a vote on this. And we had to make it real to them that there were issues. In fact, not safety issues. Issues about reliability. Issues about mismanagement. Issues about trustworthiness. Issues about systemic mismanagement that could have meaning to other people” (Katz, personal communication).

Legislators

A second key change illustrated in the media discourse is the increased prominence of legislators starting in 2007. Legislators comprised about 5% of citations in 2003. By 2009, 26% of all cited comments are attributed to legislators. As legislative sponsor attributions grew in the media, key legislative actors changed, with a legislator critical of Entergy’s ownership of Vermont Yankee taking over as Senate President in 2007 and a legislator opposed to nuclear power becoming Chair of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2008—the key legislative committee reviewing Vermont Yankee issues.

Discussion

The analysis of the media discourse illustrates how Vermont Yankee moved from a fixture of Vermont’s electric system to rejection by the state’s political leaders in the 8 years it operated under the management of Entergy Nuclear. Three trends are evident in the media discourse, starting prior to the announcement of the tritium leaks in 2010—changes in media frames, changes in the prominence of certain policy actors, and changes within policy actor categories.

Starting with the sponsors in the discourse, there is an increase in attributions to legislative leaders in the 3 years following the 2007 cooling tower collapse and leading into the Vermont Senate 2010 vote to reject the plant. Legislative leader’s increased emphasis on public accountability is a prime driver in the increase in the prominence of that frame. Prior to 2007, legislative leaders’ position towards the plants’ continued operation can be characterized as grudging acceptance. For example, in 2006, Entergy requested an approval to store high-level radioactive waste in concrete bunkers outside the facility, commonly called “dry cask storage.” Safety issues are the purview of the NRC, but the waste storage request required a vote of the legislature. Legislative approvals came following concessions by Entergy to create a “Clean Energy Development Fund” with total appropriations of $25 million (Gram 2007a, b). As one key legislator said during the debate “permission for dry-cask storage would then come in exchange for financial investments in future energy sources” (Associated Press 2005).

The following year, the legislature’s move to acquire authority in the relicensing decision was characterized in a similar vein by then Vermont Senate President Peter Welch (D-Windsor), as previously noted. After 2007, there was an increased prominence of legislator’s use of the public accountability frame. For example, here is Senate President Peter Shumlin in 2008, “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear industry” (Associated Press 2008).

At the heart of the public accountability frame is a concern about the lack of accountability of Vermont Yankee’s owner, Entergy Nuclear. Opponents increasingly illustrated this by talking about the company as “out-of-state” or putting the word Louisiana or New Orleans in front of Entergy when they spoke of the company. Vermont’s electric utilities are small-scale, Vermont-based entities very tied into their customer base (Young, personal communication). Opponents contrasted Vermont utilities and Vermont Yankee with Entergy to underscore narratives of trust and integrity (White, personal communication). Here is Shumlin in 2009 “It’s my judgment that the Douglas Administration and the Governor has lost their objectivity when it comes to Entergy Louisiana. Clearly, as evidenced by the vetoes, they will stand up for Entergy Louisiana stockholders at the expense of Vermont ratepayers and Vermont voters” (emphasis added) (Gram 2009).

The replacement of the southern Vermont-based New England Coalition and its emphasis on the regulatory process with the statewide, grass-roots-oriented, and media savvy VPIRG underscores the role of sponsorship activities in reframing the debate. The skill of these groups to use unfolding events depends on their resources, knowledge of journalistic practices, and organizing abilities (Carragee and Roefs 2004; Gamson 2005; Lawrence 2010). VPIRG and other environmental groups brought a new approach to the contest, avoiding participation in state and federal regulatory processes and instead focusing on media and grass-roots organizing (Paul Burns, personal communication). In late 2009 and into the spring of 2010, VPIRG poured more than $175,000 into public opinion surveys, paid advertising, and stepped up organizing and legislative lobbying (Paul Burns, personal communication). These resources allowed the organization to refine media messaging strategies, taking advantage of outside events to underscore their preferred frames.

Turning to the concept of narrative integrity, this study illustrates how events at the plant undercut plant supporter’s preferred frames and allowed opponents an opportunity to promote their chosen frames. The collapse of the water-cooling tower in 2007 highlighted opposition narratives of an aging, unsafe, and mismanaged nuclear power plant and undercut Entergy’s preferred frames of economic progress and fair process emphasizing expert knowledge and rational planning. The continuing news stories in 2008 and 2009 about shortfalls in the decommissioning fund prompted efforts by Entergy to create a new corporation to potentially avoid some of the plant’s future liabilities and the 2010 stories about tritium leaks and plant officials misleading statements all further undercut Entergy’s preferred frames. Policy entrepreneurs look for episodic events and “policy windows” that allow them to promote their chosen narratives in the media (Kingdon 1984; Lawrence 2010). VPIRG and other plant opponents seized on the August 2007 cooling tower collapse to underscore the narrative of an aging and unsafe plant, broadcasting the image through the media and through the organization’s various communication and organizing activities. Evidence of the success of these policy entrepreneurs is seen in the changed media discourse in the years leading up to the senate vote.

In early 2010, the announcement of a tritium leak and later evidence that Entergy officials had mislead state regulators about the existence of underground pipes underscored opposition narratives of untrustworthy utility executives. Senate President Shumlin summarized the opposition arguments this way on the day of the senate vote “Vermonters deserve better than an aging, unreliable nuclear power plant owned by an untrustworthy out-of-state corporation” (Gram 2010e).

However, the public accountability frame had already started to increase in 2008, as the media discourse illustrates. Journalists also adopted this frame over time, becoming increasingly critical. By 2010, journalists were displaying public accountability in 31% of their unattributed frames, such as this statement: “The state’s lone nuclear plant had a tough day in the capital Wednesday, getting reprimanded by utility regulators in the morning for misleading statements and getting calls from the governor later in the day for a management shake-up” (Gram 2010a, b, c, d, e, f). The increased displays of public accountability were also driven by the increasing role of legislators in the news media—from 4% of citations in 2006 to 26% in 2009—and increasing legislative references to the plant’s out-of-state owners.

Conclusion

This case study underscores the value of examining media discourse to understand changes in public opinion and public policy (Gamson and Modigliani 1989). We find that examining the media discourse in the years leading up to the Senate vote confirms that opposition narratives towards the plant had already started to gain traction, starting in 2007 with the water-cooling tower collapse. The change in media actors and their skill in taking advantage of exogenous events to promote their preferred frames contributed to the changes in media frames over time.

This study set out to understand the Vermont Legislature’s 2010 vote to reject Vermont Yankee, a plant that had earlier been seen as likely to be relicensed. The study demonstrated that there was a confluence of events, strategic framing, and invigorated policy actors that helped plant opponents “win” the policy debate. The water-cooling tower collapse and the tritium leaks provided “policy windows” (Kingdon 1984) which allowed opponents to develop a credible narrative that questioned the safety, reliability, and accountability of Vermont Yankee. The story of Vermont Yankee is theoretically interesting because it demonstrates the intersection between the social construction of reality and real-world events. More specifically, it illustrates that strategic framing can be successful when policy actors weave a narrative that employs ideas and symbols that resonate and fit with real-world events. These observations are applicable beyond Vermont Yankee to broader environmental policy and policy in general. These findings are instructive in understanding the factors contributing to changes in the media discourse around news coverage of nuclear power and how those changes can influence and be influenced by the policy actors, contributing to changed policy outcomes.

Footnotes
1

Journalists and news editors are also key actors; functioning as gatekeepers and interested policy actors themselves. The production of news is influenced by a complex interaction between: (1) journalistic norms; (2) dependency on sources; (3) desire of the news industry to earn profits; (4) adherence to public preferences; and (5) the value preferences of journalists (Callaghan and Schnell 2001). The results reported in this study are certainly influenced by these biases in news production. However, the results still serve as a valid reflection of the construction of meaning about Vermont Yankee within the media discourse. The mass media is a central institution in the construction of meaning about policy issues. Studying the media coverage about Vermont Yankee tells an important part of the story of how Vermont Yankee was socially constructed.

 

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