50 Years Ago, the Anti-Nuclear Movement Scored Its First Major Victory in CA
An interview with Bill Kortum, who helped lead the opposition to a nuke plant at Bodega Bay
Fifty years ago, on October 30, 1964, the American environmental movement scored a major victory when California utility Pacific Gas & Electric said it was abandoning plans to construct an atomic energy plant at Bodega Bay, about 70 miles north of San Francisco.
The struggle to protect Bodega Head is widely viewed as the launch point of the US anti-nuclear movement. The mass demonstrations at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, the opposition to PG&E’s development of the Diablo Power Station on the California Coast, the long-running American Peace Test actions against the Nevada nuclear test, the massive Nuclear Freeze marches – all of them came in the wake of the struggle against building a nuclear plant outside this small fishing village that would soon become better known as the setting of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, The Birds.
To many Northern California residents today, it is amazing that such a proposal ever existed; that otherwise sane people thought it was a good idea to build a nuclear power plant at the Bodega Head. At the time, however, most Americans were pro-nuclear, including most self-indentified “conservationists” or “environmentalists,” a word that was just then coming into use. So it fell to an ad-hoc band of citizen-activists to raise the alarm about the power plant and to spearhead the opposition to it. If those concerned citizens had not risen up to oppose this ill-conceived plan, we would be living in a different Northern California today, saddled no doubt with an aging industrial forbidden zone on what had once been a beautiful rocky outcropping on the coast.
I had the chance to speak with Bill Kortum, one of the few people still living in Sonoma County who was involved. Although I had prepared a set of questions to ask for the interview, most of them were swept away by Kortum’s eagerness to just spill his thoughts and memories of the six-year “Battle of Bodega Bay.”
Today, the pit that PG&E started excavating for the planned power station, known locally as “the hole in the head,” has become a small pond on the ocean’s edge – evidence of how nature can heal itself when we stop our destructive practices and get out of the way.
Tell me about how you first became aware of the issue, and your role in the effort.
When I was a kid, at a very impressionable age, my dad used to take us out to the coast. He shared with us what a beautiful place this is and what a difference from day-to-day life. We’d collect abalone and have a picnic on the beach. Many people shared a love of the beauty of the area. It was shattering to think we might industrialize our coast.
PG&E first announced plans for a plant out there in 1957, but it was not until the early ‘60s that they said anything about nuclear. Sonoma County was a conservative county back then and PG&E said, "We will up the county's assessed [property] values by 30 percent, so how could you be against this financial cash cow?" Not many people stepped forward to fight it.
I had just graduated from UC-Davis veterinary school and returned to Sonoma County as a young veterinarian, focusing on the dairy industry. At Davis they hammered into us the dangers of radiation. Other nuclear power plants in the world could not prevent the release of radioactive iodine, and the Bodega Head plant was upwind from the dairy pastures of Sonoma and Marin. Iodine 131 in the milk would be a profound threat to the dairy industry. I spoke out and warned the dairymen about the dangers. Eventually PG&E came out and said, “Don’t worry about Iodine 131, Kortum’s all wrong." That was tough on a [veterinarian] trying to build a practice.
Did anyone back you up?
I had a colleague up in Eureka. PG&E had built a pilot plant south of Eureka, upwind of a schoolyard and also upwind of some dairy cows. I asked my colleague if he had any clients downwind, and could he get some thyroids from some of the slaughtered cows. He was very cooperative. I was able to send thyroid tissue samples to Berkeley and sure enough, they were loaded with Iodine 131. The plant was the prototype for the Bodega Head plant.
Who were some of the key players in the fight?
It was individuals – not organizations – that made the difference.
Joel Hedgpeth was one of the first to speak out. He was an eminent marine biologist who ran the College of the Pacific marine lab nearby and was very aware of the hazards. He was a brilliant guy, a scientist and a poet.
Rose Gaffney, who owned a large section of the headlands; Hazel Mitchell, a Bodega Bay activist; my brother Karl Kortum and his wife Jean. David Pesonen ran the campaign. They and others formed the Northern California Association to Preserve Bodega Head and Harbor. One of their more creative actions was to release balloons from the Head with a note attached that said that if it had been Strontium 90 or Iodine 131 instead of a balloon, it would have landed in the same place. The notes included a return address; the cards came back from the East Bay and Marin County.
Dave Pesonen was a central figure. He started out trying to get the Sierra Club interested and then began to work on it on his own. He kept after it. Pierre St. Amand was a geologist who came north to help. Doris Sloan, who lived in Sebastopol during this time, and later became a geologist at UC Berkeley, was also a key player.
You say the Sierra Club was not helpful in the fight?
The Sierra Club was not helpful in this. In fact, Ansel Adams, who was on the board of the Sierra Club, was all in favor of allowing nuclear power plants to be built all up and down the coast. Very short-sighted. In those days the rallying of people on these issues was not what it was in the later ‘60s.
Tell me more about your brother, Karl Kortum, and his wife, Jean. I know they played a big role.
My brother was concerned about this in the beginning mainly because of the threat of industrialization of the coast – the destruction of the beauty. Karl went out to Bodega Bay and visited all the locals, including Rose Gaffney. When he got home, he spent a weekend writing a letter to the editor and sent it to Scott Newhall, editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. It raised Scott’s eyebrows. Scott cleared out the editorial page to make room for the letter, which was way too long for a typical editorial letter. He put it in the paper and then took three days off because he knew he would be in big trouble with the publisher. San Francisco was a PG&E town at the time. The last sentence suggested that readers ask that the CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission] re-open hearings on [the proposed power plant]. The CPUC received 1,500 letters and reopened the hearings. This is now the early ‘60s.
Jean Kortum had powerful contacts with the Democratic Party and used her friendship with Assemblyman Phil Burton to sway the State Assembly, both California Senators, and the governor to come out against the project, which they did.
What was going on locally?
Things were getting interesting. My fellow student from UC Davis, Jim Steere, introduced me to publisher Ernie Joyner who had recently bought the Sebastopol Times. At my urging, Joyner published David Pesonen’s paper “A Visit to an Atomic Park” in three editions with big headlines every week. This gave the issue legitimacy in the county, while the CPUC hearings gave it legitimacy on the larger stage. Ernie lost 40 percent of his advertisers, but he was an old newspaperman, so that didn’t stop him. Someone once shot a hole through the front door of his Arizona newspaper office. All the while the Press Democrat [the largest Sonoma County newspaper] was slathering over the power plant; they loved the idea.
Was there a clear turning point?
In November of 1962 Karl and David Pesonen worked together to organize an event in Santa Rosa at Oddfellows Hall. Over 200 people showed up. Most of that crowd was probably West County. It was a critically important meeting because Governor [Pat] Brown had a full time person working on promoting “atoms for peace.” He was in the back of the room, listening and toward the end he rose up and said, “You don’t know what you are talking about, you should all go home,” and on and on, scolding us like we were a bunch of kids.
KPFA was there and they recorded it and sent it to KPFK in Los Angeles. One of the world's leading geologists, Pierre St. Amand, driving in his jeep, heard the diatribe by the governor’s assistant, so he called Dave Pesonen and said, “What can I do to help?”
Doris Sloan took St. Amand to the excavation in the Head. St. Amand said, "There’s a branch of the San Andreas fault here." He wrote a letter to the Chronicle. PG&E then hired two UC Berkeley geologists to counter St. Amand.
Harold Gilliam, a Chronicle columnist then working for Stewart Udall, the head of the Department of the Interior, told Udall: "You have a serious situation on the West Coast. You’re the head of USGS and you should give this serious study." And that happened. The Atomic Energy Commission [told PG&E] that the company would have to build the plant at least 1,500 feet from the active fault. We think it’s at that point that it went to the President Johnson’s desk and that he, knowing the California Democrats would be on his side, gave the order to shut it down. But that’s a piece of unfinished business. Someone should visit the Johnson Presidential Library and research whether he ever actually weighed in.
What was it that really ended the whole thing?
It was very important that the geologists all said no. In the end it was the seismic reality that stopped the plan.
I’ve found that in many drawn out struggles, creativity, and in particular, music enters the scene at some point. Did music ever play a role in the struggle?
Trumpeter Lu Watters, father of West Coast Jazz, came out of retirement after 14 years to perform along with Turk Murphy, and his jazz band at the Memorial Day 1963 release of 1,500 balloons at Bodega Head to track radiation dispersal. There was a big party. There’s even a song, “Blues over Bodega,” that was written by Lu Watters to further the cause, and it was sung by Barbara Dane.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.