On a remote, scenic stretch of Pacific Ocean coastline just west of Avila Beach lies a sleeping giant. The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant serves as an electricity source, employer and economic benefactor for scores of Central Coast residents -- and a source of trepidation as well.
This month, the power plant is the focus of the art exhibit "Redacted: Transparency, Democracy and Nuclear Power." Organized by the local nonprofit Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, the exhibit pairs editorial cartoons dealing with Diablo Canyon with heavily redacted communications between Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns and operates the plant, and two government bodies that regulate it, the California Public Utilities Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"It's an art exhibit unlike any other that I've seen in my entire life," said Jane Swanson, spokeswoman for anti-nuclear nonprofit organization San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, and one guaranteed to elicit a response. "This art exhibit definitely does raise consciousness and start a political discussion in helping people see the big picture."
Her group is planning its own event in memory of Fukushima on March 11. "Fukushima Is Everywhere" will feature music by Inga Swearingen, poetry by Blake Williams and a prayer by Japanese Buddhist monk Sawada Shonin, who plans to walk from Santa Barbara to Diablo Canyon to the San Luis Obispo County courthouse in support of a nuclear-free future.
According to David Weisman, outreach coordinator for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, the inspiration for "Redacted" came as he prepared for a legal briefing by spreading out documents on the floor. As he gazed at the pages, broken visually into bold blocks of black and white, he was suddenly struck by their aesthetic power.
"I said, 'There's quite a metaphorical abstract pattern here,'" recalled the Morro Bay resident, who was reminded of the abstract, geometric works of Russian avant-garde artists El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. "It is sobering to take a look and realize what remains hidden, what remains seen. We've got black and white. We have darkness and light. We have truth and obfuscation."
The effect wasn't lost on Weisman, who graduated from New York University with a bachelor's degree in film and television in 1983. Before moving to the Central Coast 14 years ago, he worked as a documentary filmmaker specializing in social and environmental issues -- examining such topics as squatters in the Philippines ("On Borrowed Land"), green building techniques ("At Home with Mother Earth") and environmental regulation (the 28-part PBS series "Preserving the Legacy").
"When you request a document and you get back entirely blacked-out pages, at first it's laughable. It's absolutely absurd," Weisman said, but strangely telling. In December 2013, he created a similar but smaller art exhibit featuring redacted documents at Ocean Beach People's Organic Food Co-op in Pacific Beach.
Visitors to "Redacted" enlarged versions of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, flip through a notebook of other altered documents and see censored and uncensored versions of communiques dealing with a NRC-commissioned report by Robert Sewell assessing the risks tsunamis could pose to Diablo Canyon.
"Redacted" pairs those documents with 20 editorial cartoons by San Luis Obispo artist and architect Russell Hodin, who moved from Southern California to the Central Coast 35 years ago to attend Cal Poly. His satirical cartoons have been appearing in the pages of local alternative weekly New Times for 23 years.
Although Hodin has covered a multitude of local issues in his work -- his Diablo Canyon cartoons only constitute four percent of the hundreds he's inked over the years -- the cartoonist finds the nuclear power plant a routinely fascinating subject.
"If something's getting a lot of ink, that attracts me.... "That's the stuff that really captures my interest," said Hodin, who counts Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Paul Conrad among his influences. "It's part of my burden as an opinion person in the county to not let things go by unchallenged that are important."
Diablo Canyon Power Plant has been a source of controversy and commentary since the 1960s, when PG&E first announced plans to bring nuclear power to the Central Coast.
In 1981, two years after a partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, thousands of protesters -- including singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who had been organizing "Stop Diablo" concerts since the late '70s -- flocked to the entrance of Diablo Canyon in what the Los Angeles Times called "the Normandy Invasion of civil protests."
After decades of demonstrations, hearings and court cases, the NRC granted PG&E operating licenses for the plant's two Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor units. The first unit began commercial operation in 1985, followed by the second in 1987.
Today, Diablo Canyon produces a total of 18,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to meet the needs of more than 3 million Californians. In 2011, the plant employed more than 1,400 workers with a payroll of $202 million, PG&E said, making the utility one of the largest employers and taxpayers in the area.
Plus, with the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2013, Diablo Canyon is the last nuclear power plant operating n California. (PG&E has applied for 20-year extensions of its Diablo Canyon operating licenses, set to expire in 2024 and 2025.)
Although state and federal regulators maintain that Diablo Canyon is safe, public concerns about the safety and necessity of the plant persist in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown.
Chief among those fears is the presence of five fault lines surrounding Diablo Canyon -- some running just offshore of the plant -- that could trigger catastrophic temblors.
PG&E completed a four-year assessment of the earthquake danger facing Diablo Canyon in September 2014 and concluded that the power plant is seismically safe and capable of withstanding a quake from any of the faults. But critics including U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, U.S. Rep. Lois Capps and former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee argue an independent review of all seismic data is needed.
Another concern is the plant's cooling system, which circulates 2.5 billion gallons of seawater each day. That water is discharged back into the ocean 20 degrees warmer, damaging the ocean ecosystem by killing fish larvae and harming kelp and other forms of algae.
"We don't need Diablo Canyon right now and we certainly don't need the risks," Swanson said. "Even if you love nuclear power and you do not think that Mother Nature will throw you any gutterballs, even if you think mechanical failure will never happen to you ... there's just no excuse for having Diablo Canyon where it is."
Founded in 1973, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace deals primarily with safety and legal issues on the federal level, Swanson said. The all-volunteer group has 45 core members and a mailing list of more than 1,000 people; contrary to its name, participants do not have to be parents, women or even Central Coast residents to join.
The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, in contrast, focuses on anti-nuclear activism at the state level.
"We don't really discuss the technology of nuclear power. We don't discuss health effects," explained Weisman, who joined the group when it was formed in 2005. "We take a look at economics. Our stance on nuclear power ... is it doesn't pencil out. It's no longer profitable or economic to run (these plants)."
Although not directly involved in "Redacted," Swanson said Mothers for Peace welcomes the Alliance exhibit. "It's a different way to educate a different audience," she said, particularly those who are not aware of Diablo Canyon or the potential dangers it poses.
According to San Luis Obispo artist Mark Bryan, art can be a surprisingly effective tool in getting a message across.
"An artist doesn't have a lot of power or money but they can express feelings that a lot of people have," said Bryan, whose satirical oil paintings often deal with social issues such as war, politics and poverty. "It's somewhat satisfying to get to laugh at something you're scared of, or people you're scared of. It's a way to get back at them."
In fact, he added, sly humor can be just successful as graphic imagery in engaging the viewer. "If a person gets a laugh or a humorous take .. it somewhat seduces the viewer into looking at (the piece) and thinking about it," the artist said.
Bryan didn't contribute any pieces to the "Redacted" exhibit, but he's been exploring Diablo Canyon in his work since the 1970s. "I've always been into that topic because it's right here in our backyard," he explained.
In fact, Bryan featured a few Diablo Canyon-themed pieces in his exhibit "More Things to Worry About" last fall at the Steynberg Gallery -- including "Devil's Due, Meltdown at Diablo Canyon," which depicts people running in terror from a twisting, tornado-like radioactive plume.
"I like to think that all of my paintings are well-crafted and pretty at some level ... but the story they're telling might not be so pretty," Bryan explained.
Whether gallery goers find the pieces in "Redacted" amusing, alarming or both, Weisman hopes the exhibit will serve as a powerful call to action.
"This is an attempt to broaden the public engagement" and move beyond the public meeting rooms and legislative offices where his group normally operates, he explained.
"People who see the exhibit should be able to walk away and realize that we as engaged citizens cannot take for granted blank assertions that government regulators and appointed watchdogs have the truth at their disposal, or are able to act on it," he said. "If you are an engaged citizen of democracy, you have to force the truth."