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by John Wills
(University of Nevada Press, Reno, 2006, 187 pp)

Review by David Weisman

This issue of HopeDance, which the reader may be holding in his or her hands, is published within the 17-mile fallout zone of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo, California.  For those who are new to that community – and may not even be aware of its presence – this book provides an excellent primer on the history and conflict involving the siting of a nuclear reactor on the Pecho coastline.  And for those veteran residents who lived through and participated in the often tumultuous decade of protest against its construction, the book may also serve as a scrapbook; a timely reminder of that period when the national spotlight was focused on this otherwise quiet county. 

Wills’ thesis (and the book reads very much like a thesis paper, often rather dry) is that the stretch of coastline on which the reactor was eventually built has always been used by the inhabitants for energy or sustenance, and therefore a nuclear reactor is the ultimate 20th Century manifestation of that history.  Although the metaphor is sometimes forced (Chumash natives harvesting shellfish is far less harmful than the thermal discharge of the reactor’s cooling pumps) the colorful tales of the various settlers, ranchers and traders who used this coast provided some context for places and names in the county, like “Spooner” (of the cove) and “Hazard” (of the canyon).  As a newer resident of the county, I found this background to be rich and informative.  Interestingly, these coastal bluffs were considered a military target of strategic security importance during the earlier World Wars…and would be once again after 9-11 (which occurred beyond the period covered in the book, but more on that later).

The drama begins in the early 1960s when Pacific Gas & Electric decides to build a nuclear reactor on the central coast of California, originally proposing the Nipomo Dunes.  This is the most richly detailed and historic part of the book and creates the “fallout” referred to in the title. The Sierra Club enters the fray in opposition to the plan.  The Club, which had been involved with conservation, but not necessarily activism (and was regarded more as a “hiking” club) finds itself split between technology and nature, with prominent Sierrans like Ansel Adams supporting nuclear power over fossil alternatives (believing in the promised answer to the long- term problem of radioactive waste).  Set against, and analyzed in the context of the ‘60s revolutions –  sexual, political and racial – the nascent environmental movement divides between the older conservationists and newer, more radical “no compromise” school, with Sierra Club director David Brower becoming both a hero and lightening rod for the controversy.  In the end, the Sierra Club trades the preservation of the Nipomo Dunes in support of the site at Diablo Canyon (with de facto support of nuclear power), and amid infighting, Brower leaves the club in disgust – a rift with repercussions that linger to this day.

What follows is the emergence of grass-roots groups, who made San Luis Obispo the site of the largest anti-nuclear rallies in the turbulent Diablo blockade and protest days of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.  Of course, the events of the Three Mile Island meltdown, the coincidence of the release of the film The China Syndrome, and Chernobyl are also recounted.  So are the battles of intervener groups like the Abalone Alliance and the Mothers for Peace, with such revelations as the major earthquake faults beneath the plant, and the flawed blueprints – all safety concerns brought to public light by these watchdogs (and requiring costly fixes for the ratepayers!). 

It is unfortunate that this book seems long in germination; published in 2006, most of the oral interviews which serve as references are dated from 1997, and the narrative itself is only complete up until the California energy crisis of 2000-2001.  The book is not updated to include the now infamous audio tapes of the Enron energy fraud and subsequent trials during which the “hoax” was revealed.  In addition, the author concludes that activism on the part of local watchdogs like the Mothers for Peace had been diminished by the new millennium – when in fact the events of 9-11 opened up another entire chapter in Diablo’s history, including a victorious lawsuit for the Mothers against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  And even though the author concludes that, while the worst safety-related nightmares of the anti-nuclear activists failed to materialize (thankfully) at this reactor site, he does agree that Diablo ultimately proved to be a financial boondoggle for ratepayers.  Were the story updated, he’d find current activists like the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, The Sierra Club and San Luis Obispo’s Republican assemblyman passing laws calling for a true financial accountability for nuclear power.  Thus, if there is a flaw in the book, it is that current readers from outside the affected county may get the impression that the story is “over,” when in fact the drama has only intensified.  However, as a thorough background, tracing the historical roots of this contentious piece of coastline back to the days of indigenous inhabitants, it is a worthwhile resource.

David Weisman is the outreach coordinator and development director for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility (www.a4nr.org ) and can be reached at [email protected]