Cambrian: Opinion

Revisiting Diablo Canyon protests four decades later

Not all Diablo Canyon protestors joined the blockades; some trespassed in small groups.
Not all Diablo Canyon protestors joined the blockades; some trespassed in small groups.

Now that PG&E’s nuclear plant is fiscally untenable and will be shut down in nine years, recollections of my fundraising for groups trying to prevent Diablo Canyon from operating in the first place quickly come alive in my memory banks.

There is good news: Notwithstanding the nuke’s proximity to earthquake faults there has been no Fukushima-like calamity, the plant has provided huge benefits to the county’s economy, and a push to develop renewable energy sources is in the forecast.

The bad news: As of 2013, about 2,848 highly radioactive “spent fuel assemblies” (weighing over 2,000 tons) were stored on-site, and there is no permanent repository for that material. The ingredients in this toxic witch’s brew include plutonium-239, which remains hideously lethal to humans for about 8,000 generations (roughly 250,000 years).

Proposition 15 in 1976

I was involved in raising funds for “Yes on Proposition 15,” a 1976 ballot measure that, had it passed, would have made it nearly impossible for any nuclear plants to be built until a safe storage facility is established.

The ballot measure failed. PG&E saturated television airwaves with ads showing a family dining by candlelight, asserting that if Prop 15 passed, electrical blackouts would be the norm. Forty years later, there is no repository for spent waste.

One of the concerts I helped produce for Prop 15 — originally set to feature the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt — rocked a Sacramento baseball stadium in May 1976. Earlier in 1976, Ralph Nader spoke to a group of musicians at Lucy’s El Adobe restaurant in Los Angeles. Nader was viewed as an expert on nuclear power — which boils down to splitting uranium atoms to superheat water into steam, to turn turbines, which generates electricity.

Several rockers signed on, including Browne, Ronstadt, the Eagles, America, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Graham Nash. But weeks before the Sacramento concert, Browne’s wife committed suicide, and understandably, he dropped off the bill.

Jimmy Buffett graciously agreed to play in Browne’s absence. I remember picking him up at the Sacramento airport that day: What a normal, cool, down-to-earth guy he was.

The Eagles opened the show with “Take it Easy.” But a young man (possibly high on psychedelics) shinnied up a post and got onto the protective canopy above the band. He began jumping up and down as though he was on a trampoline.

I was terrified something untoward would happen — but the Eagles continued playing even though they knew some sick soul was bouncing above them.

We asked the beefy security chief not to hurt him before they went up to get him. Unfortunately, security staff beat him mercilessly and deposited him over the chain-link fence. I remember the eerie sound of an ambulance approaching as the Eagles were playing “Desperado.”

Bomb threat in Pismo Beach

I served as co-director of Pacific Alliance, a 501(c)(3); we produced fundraisers for groups around the country. We also sold Jackson Browne T-shirts on his tour (and his, along with Raitt’s, Ronstadt’s, Nash’s and others, through mail order), with a stamp on the bottom of each shirt: “Proceeds from this shirt go to a non-nuclear future.”

On April 16, 1976, we promoted a benefit at the Rose Garden Ballroom in Pismo Beach with the band Little Feat and Wendy Waldman, for Prop 15. Waldman was into her set when a phone caller asserted there was a bomb in the building.

Of course we shut down the music and evacuated the building. Interestingly, the mood of the 2,000 concertgoers out on Pomeroy Avenue was festive, perhaps because no one really believed the threat was real. We figured it was a pro-Diablo caller trying to ruin our event.

About 20 minutes after calling the SLO County Sheriff’s Office, several deputies showed up. “We don’t have a bomb squad on duty,” a deputy told me.

So guess who led them meticulously throughout the entire building, taking special care in the restrooms and the crawl space under the floor? Indeed, I was the fearless leader that night.

Getting the paying customers (whose hands had been stamped) back into the building was orderly and profitable. We sold about 50 more tickets to Little Feat fans drawn by the congenial crowd (and possibly the aroma of cannabis) on Pomeroy Avenue. The bomb threat had backfired.

Cambria mother arrested at Diablo

On Sept. 9, 1981, thousands of protesters gathered at the gates of Diablo — it was the Abalone Alliance “Blockade.” Police, sheriff’s personnel and the CHP warned protesters that they would be arrested if they crossed the blue line.

Nearly 2,000 did get arrested, including Cambria resident Marcelle Bakula. She was trained for nonviolent civil disobedience but wasn’t actually intending to be arrested that day.

“But all of a sudden some of the women from the group Oaks and Acorns were getting arrested and having their children taken out of their arms. There was a big hubbub, and when I saw these ladies getting arrested, that was pretty inspiring. So I gave my keys to someone I knew and said, ‘Tell my husband I’m getting arrested.’ ”

In fact Bakula and some of the others who were busted hadn’t crossed the blue line. The CHP determined some protesters were creating a traffic nuisance, so they rounded people up, put them on a bus, transported them to the sheriff’s office and then, Bakula said, they “just let us go.”

Three years later, in May, 1984, on the day that PG&E received its operating license, Bakula and her small, North County anti-nuclear group, Life on Planet Earth, decided to reaffirm their moral opposition.

“We crossed the line on purpose and sat down. We were warned three times that we were trespassing and would be arrested. They asked me if I wanted the plastic handcuffs in front or behind. We were taken to the County Jail’s holding area. I was eight months pregnant with my first son Alex; a female guard escorted me to the bathroom.

“ ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this,’ she said. ‘You should be thinking about your child.’ ‘I am thinking about my unborn child,’ I said. ‘I am doing this because I believe strongly that our future generation’s world should not be contaminated by radioactive waste.’ ”

In hindsight, Bakula believes that “if there hadn’t been so much attention brought to the earthquake issue and concerns for safety, I don’t think it would have been as safe as it turned out to be.”

For her second arrest, Bakula was ordered to stand before a judge in SLO Superior Court, and was sentenced to community service in lieu of a fine. She was fortunate to be assigned to the Cambria library, shelving books, which she gladly did with her infant son Alex in a front-pack.

Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at