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Across the Blue Line: Five Decades of Civil Disobedience at Diablo Canyon

It was a brilliant summer day on the seashore in San Luis Obispo County. We stood at the entrance to Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Run by Pacific Gas and Electric, better known as PG&E, it is the lone remaining active nuclear plant in California. Across the street, children played on Avila Beach. Cars streamed out of the plant’s entrance. “Shift workers,” Jane told me. Jane Swanson is the spokesperson for Mothers for Peace, an organization which has been fighting Diablo’s existence for 42 years. As we spoke, our feet grazed a thin blue line, painted onto the concrete, delineating where public property ended and PG&E property began. Over the years, thousands of people have been arrested for crossing this line as an act of organized civil disobedience. But today, Jane was careful not to cross this storied boundary. There was work yet to be done, and Jane was too busy to lose her liberty.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

In 1963, PG&E announced plans to build a nuclear power plant on the Nipomo Dunes in San Luis Obispo County. The local Sierra Club strongly objected, and some club leaders convinced PG&E to instead build at Diablo Canyon, a large stretch of undeveloped shoreline west of Avila Beach. From the beginning, many groups were opposed to the plant’s construction, due to environmental, safety, and economic concerns. Early groups opposing PG&E’s plans included the Scenic Shoreline Preservation Conference and San Luis Bay Properties. In 1968, a construction permit was issued for Diablo Canyon Unit One. In the late 60s, the Hosgri Fault, a major fault capable of producing a massive earthquake, was discovered less than three miles offshore from the proposed plant site. PG&E claimed it did not become aware of the fault until 1972.

Around this time, Mothers for Peace, which had started out as a group of progressive young mothers opposed to the Vietnam War, entered the fray. “In ’69 or ’70, one of our members came to a meeting and said, ‘You know that big excavation going on near Avila Beach? That’s going to be a nuclear power plant.’ And our first question is, ‘what is a nuclear power plant?’” Swanson remembers. “We started at zero-knowledge base. Because in 1969, nuclear power plants were not in California -- we knew the word but we didn’t know what it entailed.” The more they learned about the dangers of nuclear power, the more concerned they became. In 1973, the MFP and members Sandy Silver and Elizabeth Apfelberg filed as intervenors against the plant. Swanson explains that being an intervenor means “We are on the same legal footing -- not financial footing -- but the same legal footing as Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency. So we have the same legal right to push for how Diablo Canyon is regulated, whether or not it runs.”

Throughout the 1970s, these young mothers joined with other groups, including many concerned professors at California Polytechnic State University, to fight the plant’s ongoing construction. “We were considered a bit crazy,” Swanson says. “We were patronized by the Atomic Energy Commission [now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission]…like ‘Ladies, do you need to go home and make dinner for your families?’” Members held rallies, attended meetings and hearings, filed motions and hired lawyers to constantly challenge PG&E plans. In 1977, they successfully blocked a request by PG&E for an interim license.

In 1977, a new, flashy ally joined the fight. The Abalone Alliance, founded in the Bay Area, was a statewide organization dedicated to keeping nuclear power out of California. That year, they held their first blockade at the entrance of Diablo Canyon, where 47 people were arrested, many for crossing the symbolic blue line. After the accident at Three Mile Island, the anti-nuclear power cause gained momentum. In June 1979, Governor Jerry Brown spoke out against the plant in front of a crowd of over 40,000 at a rally in San Luis Obispo County. Jane Fonda, Bonnie Raitt and other celebrities joined the opposition.

Linda Seeley and Jane Swanson  | Photo: Hadley Meares
Linda Seeley and Jane Swanson | Photo: Hadley Meares

As the licensing fight heated up, everyone became more radicalized, including long time MFP member Jane Swanson. She remembers sitting at a NRC hearing aghast at what she heard. “I asked somebody, one of my friends who knew more than I did, ‘How come PG&E has two tables of six people each?” and she said, ‘No, that one over there is the NRC staff.’ And I said, ‘They talk just like public relations from PG&E!’ And they still do.”

“The thing about nuclear power, is the nuclear operators, the industry, and the people that regulate them are bonded at the hip,” says Linda Seeley, MFP Vice President. “The regulatory agency -- 80 percent of their budget comes (by order of our Congress) from the industry that they are regulating. So if I have a job, I want to keep my job. I don’t want to take down the thing that’s feeding my family. So it’s a sham.”

The Abalone Alliance proved to be masters at organizing large scale civil disobedience. Scores of “affinity groups” of concerned citizens were formed. These groups then signed up with the Abalone Alliance, who trained them on how to commit civil disobedience and what to expect when they were arrested. In September 1981, a 20-day “blockade” drew stars like Jackson Browne and Robert Blake, and produced almost 1,900 arrests. A writer for People magazine reported:

During the last days of the protest, it was announced that a young engineer working for PG&E discovered that part of the reactor had been built backwards. All temporary licenses for the plant were suspended while the problems at the plant were corrected. The MFP and other groups continued to chip away at PG&E through legal means.

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However, in January 1984, the NRC announced it would license Diablo Canyon. Abalone Alliance began a four month People’s Emergency Response Plan, which again involved protests at the main gate. Seeley was arrested three times crossing the blue line (once with her baby strapped to her chest). “It was hard for me because I had little kids, and I didn’t know what was going to happen if I committed civil disobedience, but I figured, there are an awful lot of people getting arrested and they have a pretty small jail.” She laughs. “I decided to take my chances. And it’s a very exciting feeling…you hold hands and walk in together across the blue line.”

The protests, petitions, sit-ins, and lawsuits were unsuccessful. In August 1984, the NRC granted full operating license to the Unit One reactor at Diablo Canyon. A year later, the Unit Two reactor was licensed to operate. By 1987, the Diablo Canyon Power Plant was fully operational. Abalone Alliance disbanded, and many other groups went on to other causes. But Mothers for Peace stayed in the game. They hired Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Diane Curran, and continued to challenge PG&E in every way they could. “[Big] events are great. And they raise consciousness,” Seeley explains. “But in order to actually change things you have to use legal means, you have to use economic means, you have to fight fire with fire. And that’s what we do.” They feel their status as watchdog has made Diablo Canyon a better run plant. “They know we are going to make a very big deal out of their screw-ups, so they do everything under human power not to screw up so much,” Swanson says.” So it’s a better run plant than it would have been otherwise, and it’s run more carefully -- it’s not safe -- but its run more carefully than other plants in the country.”

Diablo Canyon has many supporters in the area, including the hundreds of people who work at the plant. “We are members of this community, too, and no priority is more important than the safe operation of Diablo Canyon,” says Tom Cuddy, current spokesman for PG&E. “We are a vital economic engine for San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties. PG&E is committed to the highest standards of safety to ensure that our communities and our customers have access to the safest energy possible.” PG&E is also proud of its environmental record. According to Cuddy, “Diablo Canyon is located on one of the most scenic and habitat-rich coastlines in the nation. It is surrounded by more than 12,000 acres of land that is managed by PG&E and largely maintained in a natural state as a home to many species of plant and wildlife. We are proud of our environmental stewardship.”

Photo courtesy of PG&E
Photo courtesy of PG&E

MFP say that they don’t want to take people’s jobs away -- they want to steer them towards jobs in renewable energy. Activists also argue that thousands of fish and other sea life are killed every year by the heated water the plant releases into the ocean. During the current century, MFP has acquired new allies in their fight to close the plant. The powerful environmental group Friends of the Earth was granted intervenor status, and is currently pursuing legal action around licensing issues (MFP’s are focused on safety). 9/11 increased people’s fears of a terrorist attack on nuclear facilities, especially since the air space over Diablo is not a no-fly zone.

In 2008, another major fault, the Shoreline Fault, was discovered less than a mile away from Diablo Canyon. The disaster at Fukushima and the 2013 closure of San Onofre Nuclear Generating station has made opponents hopeful that Diablo Canyon may finally be closed.

In 2014, Friends of the Earth publicized a document called A Differing Professional Opinion, by Dr. Michael Peck, the NRC’s former senior resident inspector at Diablo Canyon. According to their website, he concludes that:

The long struggle between activists and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant continues. Mothers for Peace is currently opposing PG&E’s efforts to renew their operating license until the year 2045. “I personally give us an award for our perseverance,” says Swanson wryly. “When we started this we had babies in strollers, and now we have multiple grandchildren.”

Special thanks to Mothers for Peace and the Diablo Canyon Power Plant.

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