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Rancho Seco Nuclear Plant Shutdown Begins : But Closure by Voters, First of Its Kind, Is Not Expected to Have Much Effect on Other Facilities

June 08, 1989|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Rancho Seco slipped into "hot shutdown" Wednesday at 10:40 a.m., becoming the first operating nuclear power plant closed by popular vote, but the event was discounted as a unique Sacramento phenomenon with little effect on the rest of the nuclear industry or the anti-nuclear movement.

Analysts on both sides of the issue acknowledged the election as a setback for the image of nuclear energy. But they added that the circumstances behind the vote--a history of breakdowns, public ownership and widely disliked and mistrusted management--are unlikely to be repeated elsewhere.

"No one should think the vote to close Rancho Seco automatically means other nuclear power plants can be closed by citizens' initiatives," said Bob Mulholland of Campaign California, a Santa Monica-based political group that played a key role in defeating Rancho Seco. "But it will get everyone's attention."

Carl Goldstein of the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, a Washington-based nuclear industry lobbying group, called the vote "a referendum on SMUD (the Sacramento Municipal Utility District), not nuclear power."

"It's never good news when something like this happens," he added, "but it's not the beginning of the end of anything."

Some groups broke from the consensus--Public Citizen, a consumerist group affiliated with Ralph Nader, called the election "the beginning of the end for nuclear power"--but the first successful anti-nuclear ballot measure in 15 attempts was not widely expected to spark a series of similar grass-roots campaigns.

What many think it may do--and there already was some confirming evidence Wednesday--is revive practically moribund anti-nuclear campaigns that have labored unsuccessfully for at least the last 10 years to close other operating power plants or prevent new ones from firing up.

One example is the Maryland Safe Energy Coalition, which has fruitlessly battled against the troubled but recently rebuilt Peachbottom nuclear facility run by Philadelphia Electric Co. in southeastern Pennsylvania. That multi-unit facility has been fined for, among other things, having operators who slept on the job.

"We had used the safety issue, concentrating on design problems, operating problems, maintenance problems," said Patricia Birnie of Columbia, Md. "But now it is clear the economic angle is much more effective. They concentrated on the economics in Sacramento, and they won."

Voters Were Annoyed

One of the reasons for the outcome of the Rancho Seco election was the plant's historically poor performance--a problem that irritated voters because it cost the district hundreds of millions of dollars over the last five years.

However, several factors--the need to know whether to sign contracts for more nuclear fuel or replacement power--forced SMUD to seek Wednesday's vote of confidence before the district believed it had an adequate opportunity to prove Rancho Seco's new reliability.

As a result, anti-nuclear activists were able to deflect the low cost of nuclear energy in general by noting the unreliability of this particular nuclear plant.

"I kept this election focused on the cost-effectiveness of Rancho Seco. That's why we won," said Mulholland, whose group used the social and political connections of its founder, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), to fund a large share of the anti-Rancho campaign.

"There are obviously some well-running nuclear plants in America," he said. "There are, however, a number of plants that run poorly. Those plants will now be held to a new standard-- are they cost-effective?"

However, even poorly run plants do not have the burden of being wholly owned by municipal power companies, which are much more sensitive to transient politics because they are quasi-governmental agencies with popularly elected boards of directors.

Private Ownership

Goldstein said all other U.S. nuclear plants are at least partly operated by private, investor-owned utilities. To close those plants by popular vote would almost certainly require that the government first buy the plant from its private owners--a multibillion-dollar proposition that no state or local government could afford.

"This was unique because it was the first time that there was a clear referendum on a plant," said Stuart Wilson, assistant executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Assn. "It's the first time, for a vote of this kind, that there was no legal dispute in the court over the people's right to speak on a plant."

Rancho Seco also was unique, many analysts noted, because its popularly elected board of directors was so unpopular. Frequent public bickering among its members, particularly over repairs at Rancho Seco, have made the board a common target of scorn.

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