Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Photo credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

History made: The deal to shut down the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant

by Michelle Chan, vice president of programs

Yesterday’s announcement by PG&E that it plans to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is truly historic. And I don’t just mean “historic” as a synonym for “important” — although the Agreement is certainly that.

Anti-nuclear rally at Diablo Canyon, June 30, 1979. Photo credit: Jessica Collett [CC BY-NC-SA 3.0].

A history of resistance

I mean historic in that this Agreement builds on decades of hard-fought advocacy of those who have come before. In the last few months, as negotiations with PG&E progressed, I have been perusing the meticulous online archives of the Abalone Alliance, one of the key anti-nuclear groups in California (which closed its doors in 1985). Looking back through the old news bulletins, photos and personal accounts, I have been inspired and humbled by the work of thousands of activists, especially in the ’70s and ’80s. How they organized a protest 50,000 people-strong on June 29, 1979 in San Louis Obispo; how they blockaded the project site for weeks in 1981, with 1,960 activists being arrested. It makes the recent Keystone XL mobilizations seem modest in comparison.

It’s abundantly clear that the anti-nuclear movement in California won concrete gains that made this announcement possible — from a 1976 statewide moratorium on new nuclear power plants, to a 1989 vote in Sacramento where citizens voted to shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. All the way to a 2015 law that commits California to source 50 percent of its energy from non-nuclear renewable sources by 2030. The Agreement would not have been possible without the hard work of so many others over the years.

Dave Freeman presenting at Breaking Through Power, May 26, 2016. Photo credit: Slowking4 [GFDL v1.2]

Conversations with history

A second way history has unfolded through this campaign is through one of the key people we have worked with on the Diablo deal (and also on the permanent shut-down of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2013): Dave Freeman. Still spry, whip-smart, stubborn and charming at 90 years young, Dave ran the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the New York Power Authority and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Not too shabby of an ally to have on our team, working side by side with our Senior Strategic Advisor Damon Moglen. In a Conversations with History interview at UC Berkeley, Dave said,

When I went to the Tennessee Valley Authority, they were building more nuclear power plants than Carter has liver pills. They were going to nuke the whole ballgame.

At TVA, Dave built his reputation as a “practical environmentalist” and abandoned or shut eight nuclear plants while investing in energy efficiency projects. In many ways Dave showed that this could be done decades ago.

And while at Sacramento, Dave oversaw the closure of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, with citizens voted to shut down in 1989. During our negotiations with PG&E he was able to quite honestly state that he was the only person in the room with experience in decommissioning a nuclear plant. With our sights now set on shutting down the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York, a plant he used to personally oversee, Dave will be working to close one of the most dangerous nuclear reactors in the country.

David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth.

History coming full circle

This moment is also historic for Friends of the Earth, in that Diablo Canyon was the impetus for the creation of the organization nearly 50 years ago. When David Brower founded Friends of the Earth in 1969, Diablo Canyon was the first issue on the organization’s agenda and we have been fighting the plant ever since. Thomas Raymond Wellock’s book “Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958–1978” describes the fight in some detail, and the early days of our organization:

Brower concluded that the nation’s obsession with energy had denied individuals their humanity, and he was determined to give Friends of the Earth an ethical perspective…

Brower’s uncompromising vision, and his belief that we need to take a moral stand on environmental issues (not just argue our positions based on the fact that they “make business sense” for example) still pervades Friends of the Earth’s approach today. As Brower said:

In a pluralistic society, where you have all the different views, there has to be compromise. And we hire people to do it, and we send them to Congress. But it is wrong for the environmental movement to come up and suggest compromises. They should say what they stand for. — Living on Earth broadcast

There have been many times, in my 20 years at Friends of the Earth, when we have held the line and fought for what is right, rather than what is politically expedient. This approach has often made us feel a bit lonely within the beltway of Washington D.C. We have been criticized as the group who was against fossil fuels, against “clean coal,” against nuclear, against biofuels, against waste-to-energy, etc. What were we for? And if we were against all these industries, what about jobs? Could we work to advance actual solutions or were we too “pure” to work in the real world?

So it has been gratifying to work on a real life example (in the world’s sixth largest economy no less) where we didn’t compromise, and even increased our ambitions. Not only will we shut down a nuclear power plant, but we will replace it by a suite of renewables, energy efficiency and storage; and help create a Just Transition for workers and the community.

San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Our past and future

Thomas Jefferson said that “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” While our history of anti-nuclear resistance in California has inspired me, this Agreement makes me more hopeful about the future to come. The main reasons: the renewables and the Just Transition elements of the deal.

One of the things we learned after successfully forcing the permanent closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013 was that, because the shut down did not happen in an orderly fashion, the power was instead partially replaced with dirty natural gas. As we began an effective campaign to shut down Diablo Canyon, we produced a “Plan B” study which showed in detail that the power from the Diablo Canyon reactors could be replaced with renewable energy, efficiency and energy storage resources which would be both less expensive and greenhouse gas free.

Another key element of the deal is a generous $350 million compensation and retraining package for the plant’s employees, which got the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of California Utility Employees onto the Agreement. Plus it includes almost $50 million to the local government (which would otherwise be suddenly deprived of much of its tax base) to allow communities to adjust economically. Ensuring a Just Transition is not only politically critical, but also an ethical imperative. Taken together, the Agreement creates a true blueprint for phasing out of not only nuclear power but also fossil fuel powered plants in other states and countries.

This announcement marks not only the end of one nuclear power plant, and the end of nuclear power generation in California, it also marks, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle, “the end of an atomic era.” As important, it is the dawning of a new day where renewables and energy efficiency can replace nukes and fossil fuels, and do so in a way that helps keep workers and communities whole.

I would say that is pretty historic.