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California and the West

Planning Nuclear Plant's Retirement

Diablo Canyon: A ballot initiative calls for sparing the land around the plant from intense development when the facility is shut down.

February 06, 2000|SALLY ANN CONNELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

AVILA BEACH, Calif. — Twin nuclear reactors that resemble star-gazing observatories 20 stories tall sit nestled amid an isolated 14-mile stretch of coast where rolling pastureland drops off precariously to the Pacific Ocean below.

These wind-swept bluffs surrounding the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant have been the scene of countless protests in the past two decades, but have now captured the attention of conservationists and others determined to protect them from bulldozers and intense development.

In San Luis Obispo County, where any talk of new condos and golf courses prompts heated debate about the essence of Central Coast life, voters are being asked on the March ballot to anticipate a time more than 25 years in the future when Diablo ceases operation.

The DREAM Initiative calls on county leaders to eventually set aside the Diablo lands, one of the largest undeveloped stretches in private hands along the Central Coast, for habitat preservation, agriculture and public use.

"This is a bottom-up effort instead of a top-down one," said Sam Blakeslee, the San Luis Obispo financial planner who drafted the DREAM Initiative. "We are trying to attract the dollars to buy conservation easements, and we'll be able to start out by saying we have the overwhelming support of the community."

The DREAM initiative, which stands for the Diablo Resources Advisory Measure, makes no mention of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the utility that owns much of the Diablo lands.

The measure surfaced in August as PG&E was embroiled in an ongoing dispute with state regulators. State officials say that the utility is harming marine life by releasing billions of gallons of heated seawater from the plant daily, an allegation that PG&E officials dispute. PG&E and state regulators have been negotiating over a possible settlement that would require the utility to turn over a portion of the property around the plant to the state to resolve the environmental dispute. Those negotiations broke down in November, a few weeks after the DREAM initiative qualified for the ballot.

The measure quickly gained support in a county that was ground zero in the fight against the last nuclear power plant built in California. All five county supervisors voted to put the initiative on the ballot, and the area's state legislators and U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) have expressed support. The measure is nonbinding on the county and has been so noncontroversial that there is no ballot argument against it.

"We're not doing anything to support it, and we're not opposing it," said Jeff Lewis, PG&E's spokesman. "From PG&E's point of the view, the goals it expresses for the land are consistent with ours."

Lewis said one reactor's license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expires in 2020, and the other expires in 2025. Although PG&E can apply for renewals, that involves a costly rebuilding process. To decommission a plant also requires Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval.

Most of the area's environmental groups have backed the initiative, although the antinuclear group Mothers for Peace remains officially neutral.

"It's just a giant sack of air," said Nancy Culver, the group's past president and a 25-year veteran in the anti-reactor wars. Group members still challenge Diablo's license before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission every chance they get.

"It's this feel-good cotton candy ballot initiative which does absolutely nothing," Culver said.

She said that voters may be approving the initiative at the same time PG&E is applying for a federal permit to store spent nuclear fuel on-site for up to 40 more years.

"Are families going to go out there and picnic near a nuclear waste dump?" she said. "It's like the elephant in the living room. It will still be there. We can't dream it away."

Rancher Frank Mello Jr., 48, runs cattle on almost 7,000 acres of land owned or leased by PG&E south of the plant. He is cautious about the DREAM Initiative, worried about too much public access.

Mello's family has ties to the land dating back 60 years, when his father worked for a cattle ranch in the area. Mello runs his own cattle on the same land, and his brother is a farmer.

He said ranching provides better protection than establishing a state park.

"I don't want to leave it," Mello said. "This is a beautiful spot, pristine because we kept it that way."

The sheer size of the area around the plant--13,000 acres in all--grew out of PG&E's security concerns. When the $5.8-billion plant, which can provide electricity to 2 million people, was completed protests halted its start-up. Trespassers were frequently arrested.

After the plant went online in the mid-1980s, controversy seemed to die down. Plant workers became soccer coaches and PTA parents in nearby Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo and Los Osos. PG&E now employs 1,300 workers, making it the county's largest private employer.

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