Memoirs of a Movement
By Mark Evanoff
Diablo Canyon is in operation, but the anti-nuclear movement has not lost the energy war. PG&E is no longer allowed to build power plants whenever and wherever it likes. California’s public agencies don‘t allow the utility to build costly and unnecessary power plants. The Public Utilities Commission successfully ordered PG&E to invest in conservation, and despite reluctance to do so, PG&E made more money from conservation than building nuclear power plants. People are aware of the problems with nuclear power, and no longer perceive conservation as a harebrained ideology that requires people to freeze in the dark. Even businesses recognize the cost effectiveness.
Diablo Canyon went into operation simply because the opposition didn’t start mobilizing the public against the plant soon enough. Although the Scenic Shoreline Preservation Conference existed from the beginning, its founder, Fred Eissler only had the time to attend hearings and engage in internal Sierra Club wrangling. He and other people in the Sierra Club opposing Diablo Canyon couldn’t devote all of their time to fighting the plant. The San Luis Obispo Sierra Club group also opposed Diablo’s construction, but didn’t try to organize the county against the plant. A visible community based opposition didn’t‘ emerge until the plant was almost complete. By that time PG&E had made too large of a financial and political investment to walk away from the project.
PG&E was stopped at the other proposed power plant sites when people fought the project before construction began. Opponents organized the community and utilized the press and the courts. Nuclear power became a political issue. Everyone that opposed the plant and wanted to help was given a job. Organizers didn’t demand that volunteers adhere to their ideology or believe in one given way to stop nuclear power.
When the issue became political and visible, the regulatory agencies were forced to do their job. It wasn’t until the Northern California Association to Preserve Bodega Head and Harbor brought their own geologists to Bodega Bay that the United States Geological Survey started taking its job seriously. Negative publicity around Davenport and Point Arena made it easier for the USGS and the Atomic Energy Commission to raise embarrassing questions about the area’s geology.
At Kern County, organizers simply helped people understand why a nuclear power plant was not in their interest. Organizers didn’t demand the public be anti-nuclear. Education on the nuclear issue took place, but an ideology wasn’t forced upon people.
The Nuclear Safeguards Initiative involved creative deception. David Pesonen, Richard Spohn, and Alvin Duskin staged the Proposition 15 campaign to frighten the legislature and make nuclear power a public issue. Organizers didn’t expect to close all the nuclear power plants in California, but hoped the public debate would enable Assemblymember Charles Warren to persuade his colleagues to pass a less stringent law that prohibited states from building new nuclear power plants.
When the utilities later challenged the constitutionality of the Warren legislation, anti-nuclear attorneys devised creative arguments to show the laws were actually economic policy rather than nuclear policy: No waste repository existed in the United States, hence there was no place to put the radioactive waste created in the new reactors. That meant the new plants would have to shut down prematurely which made nuclear power an uneconomical investment for the ratepayer. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the argument.
The anti-nuclear groups did what the regulatory agencies refused to do — scrutinize the activities of PG&E. The regulatory agencies responsible for protecting the public health and safety, generally abdicated to the utilities until the public pushed it to do otherwise.
The USGS failed to look off-shore from Diablo Canyon before construction began and didn’t answer the questions raised by the Scenic Shoreline Preservation Conference. The Conference suspected faulting, but had an incorrect hypothesis on the fault’s location. Although the USGS disproved the Conference hypothesis, it didn’t answer the question on why seismic activity occurred off-shore.
The Public Utilities Commission failed to examine the alternatives available to Diablo Canyon and did not require PG&E to deliver the kind of plant it promised. After construction was underway, the PUC failed to audit the project to ensure it was still in the ratepayer’s interest to complete.
The Atomic Energy Commission changed the rules to accommodate PG&E. It allowed Humboldt to operate before PG&E proved it capable of surviving an earthquake. A few years later the agency didn’t demand PG&E conduct a thorough seismic investigation offshore from Diablo Canyon. When it became apparent that Diablo could not withstand an earthquake along the recently discovered Hosgri fault, the Atomic Energy Commission pressured the USGS to reduce the fault’s magnitude. After that failed, the AEC staff delayed licensing hearings, because it didn’t have enough information to confidently recommend plant operation. Had the hearings been held when scheduled, Diablo Canyon could not have been opened.
The NRC continued to help PG&E at Diablo Canyon. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board allowed the utility to bring the fuel on site before determining if the plant should even operate. A few years later, the commissioners allowed low power testing before San Luis Obispo County had an evacuation plan. Three Commissioners admitted other safety criteria had to be resolved before full power testing could begin. Even after John Horn discovered PG&E installed key bracings in backward, the NRC still allowed fuel to begin before determining if the plant was safe to operate.
The conservation groups had their own shortcomings. Hindsight is always easier, but it’s important to learn from past mistakes to prevent their re-occurrence. The Sierra Club, in an effort to save the Nipomo Dunes, lost sight of fundamental environmental values and actually hastened the destruction of Diablo Canyon. Had they chosen to do so, it could have fought nuclear power, and saved both Diablo Canyon and the Nipomo Dunes. PG&E deceived club leaders into believing they could influence utility policy. Under the euphoria of having their opinion sought, Sierra Club leaders lost sight of the implications of their actions.
The Abalone Alliance put total faith in direct action and didn’t look for ways to involve a broader constituency in their work. The Abalone Alliance was only for the rebellious counter-culture who wanted to protest society. While it was a good organization for a select group, it didn’t mobilize the people who wanted to do something, but couldn’t get arrested and didn’t want to spend a lot of times in meetings. The Abalone Alliance made nuclear power a political issue for themselves, but didn’t make it an issue for the rest of society. Those people that blockaded deceived themselves into believing getting arrested was the most important thing a person could do. Civil disobedience represented the ultimate sacrifice, and was the strongest statement a person could make. One could protest Diablo on your own terms, rather than play by the rules of society. Whether or not it stopped Diablo Canyon or motivated other people to take action didn’t really matter.
It’s not that civil disobedience is bad, it’s just not an end unto itself. Stopping nuclear power involves changing the public’s mind. It’s not enough just to go out and make a personal statement. One needs to continue educational work, after release from jail and people understand why a nuclear power plant is not in their interest. The public is not going to change its mind after reading about mass arrests in the newspaper. People working at a nuclear power plant are not going to quit their job after driving through a human carpet trying to block access through the front gate. A group cannot stop nuclear power by simply demanding it. Nor can a group stop it by working alone — cooperation is needed with other groups and constituencies. It’s necessary to work with groups one doesn’t agree with. Legal intervenors need the grassroots to write letters and do educational work. Lobbyists need an aroused public to convince the legislature to pass laws. At times well organized civil disobedience activities are important. Each group has an important role to play and needs to recognize the contribution of the other.
Unfortunately the demonstrators didn’t want to work with the lobbyists or the legal intervenors. And the lobbyists didn’t want to associate with the direct action people and be perceived as rebellious hippies. While it might have made sense to maintain a public separation to please funders and protect organizational identity, private communication is important. And it’s important that everyone recognize the contribution of each group.
Despite some blunders, the anti-nuclear movement has accomplished a series of remarkable achievements. Diablo’s operation makes victory a bit harder to see, but PG&E has been stopped. Stopping PG&E at other locations weakened the utility and strengthened the environmentalists. The anti-nuclear movement has trained thousands of people who have continued to organize around other issues. John and Phil Burton became members of Congress. David Pesonen is now a Superior Court Judge. Persons arrested at Diablo Canyon have been elected to the city council, community college board, and other public offices. Former Abalones are working professionally on a variety of environmental and social issues.
Because the campaign against Diablo Canyon has gone on for so long, it’s difficult to feel a sense of accomplishment. But the mixed victory is that the campaign has gone on for so long. A community that once supported the plant, now opposes it. More people know about nuclear power than ever before. Next to Three Mile Island, Diablo Canyon is perhaps the most famous nuclear power plant in the world.
The human cost for the Diablo Canyon campaign has been high for all parties involved. Many people dedicated their lives to either building Diablo Canyon, or to ensuring the plant never operated. Some married PG&E, and others married the anti-nuclear movement. Many dropped out in frustration, scarred for life with their involvement with nuclear power. PG&E’s Ken Dierks retired early with frayed nerves and high blood pressure. His doctor advises him not to talk about Diablo Canyon. Kathy Jackson lost life long friends because of her involvement with Diablo Canyon. Discussing Diablo Canyon is still a painful experience for her. It took years before the participants in the Sierra Club fight started talking to one another. Some wounds won’t heal.
The Abalone Alliance has also had its casualties. Some left because it was time to begin careers and raise families. People didn’t feel satisfied spending enormous amounts of time simply trying to decide what to do. Some of the people that stayed with it became bitter and no longer derived emotional satisfaction from fighting Diablo Canyon. Only a few people managed to make Diablo Canyon their life work, and not lose their personal life in the process. Members of the Mothers for Peace didn’t spend a lot of time trying to decide what to do, or condemning other anti-nuclear groups. For individuals in the organization, Diablo Canyon wasn’t singled out as a source for emotional fulfillment in life.
There are no real villains in this story. Rather, people are victims of their own enthusiasm for one particular method to make the world a better place to live. That’s not to say evil people didn’t exist, rather most people didn’t bother to think through the implications of their own actions or had a naive faith everything would work out okay in the end.
As environmentalists, we are trying to help people understand the implication of their actions and to realize other factors need to be considered, beyond self-interest when making decisions. Very simply, the world is worth caring for and there is something every individual can do to ensure other people have a chance to enjoy living on the earth.
Aldo Leopold provides sound advice, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve integrity, stability and beauty in the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.”
And finally, we shouldn’t get carried away with our own way of saving the world. People make strategic mistakes and we should be prepared to change our approach when someone points out that we are not going in the direction we intend to go.