Abalone Alliance campaigns against Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant, California, 1976-1984

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
California - Diablo Canyon, San Luis Obispo, and San Francisco
To use civil disobedience and nonviolent action to prevent the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant in Diablo Canyon and to promote the pursuance of a "saner energy policy"

In 1965 Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced its plans to build a new nuclear facility with six reactors and selected Diablo Canyon as the optimal site, even though the site included a sacred burial ground of the Chumash Native Americans and a large costal wilderness area as well as potential zones of seismic activity that could lead to earthquakes and a nuclear disaster. Construction was projected to cost $162,270,000 and the plant was forecasted to be operational in May 1972. Some complaints were made against the proposed plant between 1964 and 1972 at various licensing hearings, but PG&E was allowed to continue plans for construction. In 1973, Mothers for Peace, a local NGO that uses direct action as well as legal intervention to promote peace and fight nuclear power and weapons, stated its opposition to the proposed reactors based on the lack of an evacuation plan in case of an explosion or meltdown. Testing by PG&E in 1974 resulted in the killing of thousands of Abalone in Diablo Cove, which angered local fishermen. Unforeseen construction obstacles as well as drawn-out licensing hearings led PG&E to increase the projected construction costs by millions of dollars and the operation date was pushed back to 1977.

In 1976, nonviolent opposition against the plant accelerated when eight activists were arrested while praying at the front gates of Diablo Canyon. National media outlets began to focus on the opposition to the plant. Later in the year, the Continental Peace Walk, planned by the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence, led a march through San Luis Obispo. The walk involved numerous different groups acting against the plant and included a sit-in at the Diablo Canyon gates. The year ended as activists staged a protest at the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board's (ASLB) Environmental Impact licensing hearings as discussions continued about the risk of earthquake activity in the area.

In January 1977, People Against Nuclear Power was established as a statewide anti-nuclear activist group with Quaker support. In May 1977, People Generating Energy released 2,000 helium balloons at a rally at the PG&E headquarters. The balloons represented potential danger from radiation. Later that month, the Abalone Alliance (AA) was formed by seventy activists with the goal of halting the construction and operation of PG&E's nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon. Inspired by the East Coast's Clamshell Alliance and the massive anti-nuclear blockade in Whyl, Germany, AA was committed to the tactics of nonviolent resistance and conducted several training sessions and teach-ins in July (as well as in 1981 and 1984) while also planning several blockades and acts of civil disobedience.

In June 1977, Dr. John Goffman, an American scientists and anti-nuclear advocate, spoke at the Conference for a Non-Nuclear Future in California, warning those in attendance of the potential risk of nuclear energy. On August 6, AA activists organized a protest blockade at the gates of the reactor site as well as a 1,500-person rally at a nearby site, which resulted in the arrest of 47 people. A year later, AA held a similar demonstration at the Diablo Canyon gates at which 5,000 protested and 487 were arrested for blocking access to the facility. Some of those arrested would eventually be convicted and fined $400 for trespassing on PG&E property.

An important external event in March 1979 - the accident at Three Mile Island - increased nationwide support for the Abalone Alliance and encouraged greater civil disobedience by the activists. Approximately 25,000 people attended an AA rally in San Francisco in April, and Governor Brown called for a moratorium on construction. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) responded with a three-month national moratorium on licensing. After the release of The China Syndrome, a movie depicting a nuclear plant accident, residents participated in a march from the San Luis Obispo movie theater to the PG&E office. They carried a casket to represent the dangers of nuclear energy. In June, AA organized the largest anti-nuclear power rally ever held in the United States, attracting 40,000 people as well as Governor Brown, who stated his opposition to the facility. Protestors carried signs and wore t-shirts with slogans such as "Make Mine Sunshine" in support of solar energy and "Remember Three Mile Island". In November, AA began a 38-day sit-in at Governor Brown's office to protest operation of the Rancho Seco reactor, which has a similar structure to the one that failed at Three Mile Island. Finally, actionists conducted sixty teach-ins throughout the state.

In 1980, 15,000 residents sent their utility bills to the California Public Utilities Commission in protest of a vote against recommendations by CPUC staff to not reopen discussions on the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity concerning the Diablo plant. Although there was only room for 50 people, over 1,000 residents attempted to attend the ASLB's public hearings in San Luis Obispo on PG&E's request for a low-power testing license. AA responded to the ASLB granting of a low-power testing permit by conducting a mass blockade in September 1981. Over the course of the two-week long blockade, 1,900 people were arrested and tens of thousands showed up in support of AA. During the blockade, actionists created a utopian encampment that many described as an alternate society, complete with a system of self-governance that maintained peace at the protest camp and a temporary kitchen. Additionally, AA conducted teach-ins, neighborhood outreach and educational workshops that continued into 1984. PG&E released a statement that the costs had increased to over $1 billion dollars with an operational date of February 1982. On the last day of the blockade, it was discovered that part of the reactor was installed backwards and the NRC revoked PG&E's operating license. PG&E responded to the blockade and the loss of its license by filling a $1 million lawsuit against AA to prevent it from conducting further protests. Although the Environmental Defense Center helped to defend AA actionists, the five-year legal battle around this SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) was costly in terms of time, money, and energy.

In 1983, 3,500 attended a rally in San Luis Obispo. Battles continued in various licensing agencies in California as PG&E attempted to gain the approval necessary to load fuel and complete construction at the plant. In January 1984, AA started the People's Emergency Response Plan, which lasted through April. The plan included direct action at the main entrance gate, in the backcountry, and at PG&E headquarters in San Luis Obispo and resulted in 500 arrests. One of the major actions was a mock crucifixion and procession that took place at the main gates. Mothers for Peace filed 100 additional cases of misleading or material false statements, overloading a legal system that had already received more than 1,000 statements. As a legal intervener, Mothers for Peace gained an injunction that prevented operation of the reactor until November. However, in November, PG&E was granted a full operating license by the NRC and operation of the reactor began in May 1985.

After the end of 1984, Abalone Alliance began to disband the It's About Times newspaper and close statewide offices. Although AA's campaign against the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant was not successful in stopping construction of the reactor, various groups that had been affiliated with AA, such as Mothers for Peace, continue to protest nuclear energy in the United States, especially after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In fact, over 400 people marched to the Diablo Canyon gates on the one-year anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion. Recently, protests, such as a mass rally in San Francisco protesting nuclear power in the state in April 2011, and discussions on reactor safety have resurfaced after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan. Additionally, various AA groups continue to work with national Green party candidates to advance green energy policies and development.

Research Notes

The Clamshell Alliance, a group formed in 1976 in opposition to protest nuclear power in New England, influenced the Abalone Alliance with its creative use of civil disobedience and direct action tactics. (1)

Abalone Alliance. "Direct Action Handbook." 1979 and 1981. <http://www.directaction.org/handbook/>

"Abalone Alliance Story."  The Energy Net. <http://www.energy-net.org/>

Epstein, Barbara. Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, pp. 92-124.

"Mothers for Peace Timeline." Mothers for Peace. <http://mothersforpeace.org/data/20090321timeline>

Wills, John. "Talking Atoms: Anti-Nuclear Protest at Diablo Canyon, California, 1977-1984." Oral History. Autumn, 2000, pp. 44-53. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40166858>.

Additional Notes: 
For more information on the anti-nuclear movement see Bill Moyer. Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2001.

Edited by Max Rennebohm (29/07/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Nathalie Schils, 24/06/2011