The story behind the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) announcement last week that it would close down the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is the culmination of a 60-year land conservation and appropriate energy debate between the utility company and the people of California. The point winner is the environmental community and grassroots activists who fought long and hard for the plant’s closure.
Photo courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission
PG&E’s concession that it cannot afford to continue running the last operating nuclear plant in California effectively brings to an end this state’s more than half-a-century long contentious relationship with nuclear power.
Back in the 1950s the utility company had sought to prove the economics of the emerging nuclear technology as “too cheap to meter” and received the first commercial nuclear power plant license in the United States. The company’s then president, Norman Sutherland, envisioned “atomic parks” along the California coast in Sonoma, Mendocino, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo counties, that would produce enough energy to replace fossil fuels and hydro-power — an idea that was vociferously opposed by many Californians.
Conservationists, focused on protecting the California coast as open space, challenged the atomic parks as a threat to the environment. Fishermen feared the parks would lead to loss of fisheries. Dairy farmers worried about radiation impacting milk production. Thus, a diverse group of citizens came together and organized a campaign to get state and federal agencies to stop licensing nuclear plants. The debate expanded to concerns about the safety of nuclear power, the unresolved issue of waste disposal, and a desire for clean decentralized alternative energy generation.
The Bodega Bay Atomic Park was stopped while under construction when an earthquake fault was discovered under the proposed location of the nuclear plant’s reactor. Bodega Head is now a state park. PG&E withdrew plans for atomic parks in other locations when faced with massive opposition and ever-recurring discoveries of earthquake faults adjacent to planned reactor sites. Diablo Canyon was the only large nuclear plant the utility finally constructed, though in the face of stiff opposition. A remarkable cast of characters challenged the licensing of the facility in public meetings, courts, mass rallies, and civil disobedience actions, and continued to press for its shut down throughout the plant’s 55 year history.
The Sierra Club was one of the first organizations to push for Diablo Canyon as the location of a nuclear power plant as an alternative to the Nipomo Dunes in San Luis Obispo County. (The Nipomo Dunes are the second largest intact dune ecosystem in California.) Martin Litton, the then director of Sierra Club, who was also a dory oarsman on river trips through the Grand Canyon, urged the Club’s national board of directors to reverse its position. Litton pointed out that Diablo Canyon was the last stretch of the California Coast south of Humboldt County unmarred by a state highway. Magnificent oak trees, hundreds of years old grew, in Diablo Canyon. Litton and David Brower, the Club’s executive director at the time, worked together to convince the Sierra Club to oppose Diablo Canyon.
Differences among the board members over whether or not to oppose the plant would bring to a head the differences in ideology within the Club that would eventually lead to a split with Brower his allies leaving the organization.
As then board member Fred Eissler (who has since passed on) recalled later: “The Sierra Club was at the height of its success at the time of Diablo Canyon. If the Club had taken a strong stand against the nuclear alternative, it is possible [it would] have held up the entire nuclear program. And that is what they were afraid of. It was at that strategic moment the Club backed out and became so thwarted in controversy [that] it ceased to be effective.”
Brower went on to found Friends of the Earth, and Eissler, along with San Luis Obispo County farmer Ian McMillian, continued fighting against Diablo Canyon through the public interest group Scenic Shoreline Preservation Conference.
“In the early days, the only way to actively oppose Diablo was to become an intervener. Intervention was lonely at the time,” recalls McMillian. “To testify against the plant was heresy. Opposing the plant was the equivalent of being called a communist. Everyone at the hearings was against us. People thought Diablo would lower taxes and that they would get a break on electricity purchases.”
After six years of hearings before the California Public Utilities Commission and the Atomic Energy Commission, PG&E ultimately received the permits required to construct two reactors in Diablo Canyon and construction started in 1968.
The utility had plans to install two additional reactors, but three years after construction on the Diablo plant began, in 1971, an anti-war group called Mothers for Peace produced evidence of an earthquake fault called the Hosgri Fault located off the coast from the plant site that had not been disclosed when PG&E applied for the permit to construct the plant.
Although the legal intervention process pursued by Mothers for Peace provided a means for experts to participate in the licensing process, the group’s founder, Raye Fleming, recognized that another venue was needed for people to challenge the safety and viability of nuclear power. Fleming envisioned direct action as a method of getting the debate out of the courtroom and among the people who, she thought, should be the final decsion-makers. Working with American Friends Service Committee, she formed the Abalone Alliance. (The name was a reference to the tens of thousands of wild California Red Abalone that were killed in 1974 in Diablo Cove when the plant’s plumbing had its first hot flush.)
Abalone Alliance grew to be a broad network of locally based anti-nuclear organizations throughout California. Alliance volunteers trained people in non-violent direct action and the history and power of civil disobedience as means of facilitating change. It stressed on avoiding the kind of violence that took place during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.
Photo by Steve Stallone/Abelone Alliance
McMillian was one of the first people arrested for occupying the Diablo Canyon plant site in 1977. The following year, 487 people were arrested for blockading the site. Abalone Alliance utilized the affinity group structure rather than a mass collection of individual protestors. People trained together in an affinity group, knew and looked after one another. Decisions were made through a representative “spokes council.” The affinity group structure protected the integrity of the demonstrations and infiltration by adversaries, and helped weed out individuals inclined toward violence and property destruction. Soon, the Diablo Canyon controversy started to receive national attention.
Abalone Alliance held off future acts of civil disobedience pending imminent licensing of the nuclear plant and instead organized a mass rally in 1979. One week before the rally, on March 28, 1979, a massive accident shut down the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant in Pennsylvania. The accident, the most serious mishap in US nuclear power plant history to date, lent special urgency to citizen’s safety concerns about nuclear power.
People mobilized throughout California to attend the rally in San Luis Obispo. Musicians Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and Graham Nash performed. California Governor Jerry Brown arrived by helicopter and asked to speak at the rally. Brown pledged “No on Diablo” and became an intervener in the licensing of Diablo. His participation as an intervener relieved Mothers for Peace of shouldering alone the financial burden challenging the licensing of Diablo. (Since nuclear plants are regulated by the federal government Brown didn’t have the authority to shut it down.)
The Abalone Alliance planned its the next massive civil disobedience action to coincide with when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would issue Diablo an operating license and PG&E would begin loading the reactor’s fuel rods. Affinity groups pledged to come to Diablo Canyon when the loading of fuel rods was eminent.
Pledged blockaders distributed leaflets at PG&E headquarters in San Francisco announcing their intention. Expecting a massive showdown, staff from the California Attorney General’s office visited local anti-nuclear groups trying to assess to magnitude of the participants and suggested that 60,000 blockaders may show up. Seven state agencies including the Governor’s office, the California National Guard, and the Highway Patrol prepared for the blockade of Diablo. The Federal Aviation Administration developed plans to airlift 10,000 law enforcement officers onto the site if requried.
On September 8, 1981, the NRC notified the California National Guard that the Atomic Safety and Licensing Appeals Board would issue its decision that Diablo Canyon was safe the following day. The California National Guard mobilized into San Luis Obispo the following day. At Abalone Alliance, Raye Fleming activated the alert asking activists to blockade workers from loading fuel rods into the nuclear reactor at Diablo Canyon. Affinity group members arranged to take off work and come to San Luis Obispo County. A large camp was set up near the site with solar powered lights and sound systems. For transport, there were bicycles and wheeled carts.
National media converged in the county, eager to cover the historic event. PG&E provided reporters a media office with phones and typewriters for filing stories. Abalone Alliance placed reporters in a fenced off area in the camp dubbed the “media pen” by reporters. Alliance policy allowed reporters to visit the camp only under escort. The press corps eventually numbered 2000, larger than for any event at the time since the launching of the space shuttle.
Six days after the alert was launched, on Monday, September 14, the Diablo Canyon blockade began. Some people blockaded the blue line in front of the plant gate. Others hiked trails that had been scouted by local organizers in an effort to reach the nuclear power plant. There were 1,900 arrests over the course of the blockade.
The opposition to Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant became an international story. Meanwhile, PG&E continued to pledge Diablo Canyon was safe.
Four days after the Abalone Alliance blockade began, John Horn, a new PG&E engineer who had read an Alliance leaflet explaining why they planned the blockade, took a second look at the construction drawings for the nuclear power plant and realized the support beams for cooling fans above the reactor had been placed improperly. The following Monday, the NRC issued a license to begin low power testing of the reactors. Meanwhile, PG&E investigated Horn’s finding and realized it had a major problem. It had used the wrong blueprints and made the wrong calculations when constructing the support beams. As a result of the misplaced support beams, some parts of the plant lacked the reinforcement required to help it withstand strong earthquakes. The design and construction mistake had gone undetected since 1977.
Meanwhile, outside the plant, the Alliance blockade stretched into its second week, during which nearly 2,000 people were arrested. However, recognizing that participants needed to return to work and to maintain the non-violent integrity of the blockade, remaining affinity groups reached a consensus to end the blockade on Monday morning, September 28, 1981. Police arrested the remaining blockaders at 6:00 a.m. at the front gate to Diablo Canyon. Later that day PG&E made public its construction mistake. Blockaders in jail cheered the announcement.
Despite this, less than a year later, on March 19, 1982, while PG&E was still working on a two-year seismic retrofit, the NRC decided not to review its earlier decision approving the plant’s safety. And in 1984, the NRC voted 3 to 2 on the matter of issuing a license to Diablo Canyon — a clear indication that at least some of the NRC commissioners had lost confidence with PG&E.
In response, Mothers for Peace member Rochelle Becker founded the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility — a group that has since been challenging the Diablo Canyon license renewals and pressuring the California Public Utilities Commission, the California State Lands Commission, and the California Energy Commission to move away from nuclear power.
In 2007, Becker succeeded in convincing the California legislature to block a bill seeking to overturn the Nuclear Safeguards Act. The 1976 act enforces a moratorium on building nuclear power plants until a permanent storage site for high-level radioactive waste is developed. The US Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the measure.
In 2008, new earthquake fault issues emerged and the safety of the plant was questioned yet again, and in 2010, following a PG&E natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people, public confidence in PG&E diminished even further.
Following the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan 2011, calls to shut down Diablo Canyon (and the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego County) gained further strength, though PG&E still continued to insist, until as recently as last year, that the plant was strong enough to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis.
But by 2015 it appears that company executives realized any efforts to extend Diablo’s licenses would not only involve another prolonged fight, it would also further damage PG&Es already tarnished image.
Faced with such odds, PG&E finally joined hands with its longtime opponents like the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council, and crafted a joint agreement to shutter Diablo in eight to nine years and to replace the electricity generation with non-greenhouse gas generating fuels.
The California Public Utilities Commission will play the key role in determining what kind clean energy PG&E will replace its nuclear energy supply with and from where it will purchase such energy. The determination will set the policy tone for who can supply clean energy to the grid. We have the capacity for enormous safe decentralized electricity generation via rooftop solar, but there are some major roadblocks to setting such a system up. The biggest of these is that current law does not allow PG&E customers to sell surplus electricity generated by rooftop solar back to the utility.
Diablo Canyon is the last nuclear power plant in California. Redwood Alliance forced the closure of Humboldt Bay in 1976 and prevented PG&E from placing the entire financial cost of decommissioning the nuclear plant on the ratepayer. (The decommissioning process, however, is still ongoing.) Ratepayers voted to close Rancho Seco in Sacramento in 1989. Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and Friends of the Earth played a key role in the closure of San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013.
The real irony of the story is that the Atomic Industrial Forum recognized the potential controversy of nuclear power as early on as 1956 and organized a meeting that focused on how to market the technology to the public. The potential of nuclear accidents, disposal of nuclear waste, questionable economics, and local opposition were all discussed. Sixty years later, the problems identified back then remain unresolved: There is no safe place for nuclear waste; PG&E admits nuclear power is no longer economical; the meltdown in Fukushima and a massive fire and explosion at Chernobyl tragically demonstrate that massive nuclear accidents do happen.
The inspiring thing, on the other hand, is that the closure of Diablo Canyon and all these other nuclear plants prove once again that people working together can put an end to generation and use of nuclear power.