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‘You Learn to Live With It’

For activists, entertainers, reporters, charter boat captains and merchants hawking Split Wood Not Atoms bumper stickers, the only place to be 10 years ago was the human blockade of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. This was the Normandy Invasion of civil protests, the culmination of a long, bitter campaign to keep Pacific Gas & Electric Co. from operating the twin reactors it built on a coastal bluff just west of here.

Blockaders hopped fences and hiked across rugged backcountry to infiltrate the plant. Others boarded rubber rafts and wooden ships and invaded by sea. Thousands more massed at the front gate and were arrested in waves. The protest had a California feel. The no-nukers formed into small, leaderless cells called “affinity groups.” Affinity groups made decisions only through a process they described as “consensusing.” Even the simplest call--do we veer right into the briars, or left into the brambles?--could take hours.

Funny things kept happening: Jackson Browne was arrested and a press photographer named Red was dispatched to take a picture. Red was pure country boy. He talked in a twang and didn’t appear up on any musician to the left of Merle Haggard. Still, he made his way to the bus where arrestees were detained and hollered for Browne. A pale-skinned man with long brown hair leaned out.

“I’m Jackson Browne,” he said.

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Red gave the man a hard squint.

“Nah,” he said finally, putting down his camera. “Jackson Browne is black.”

No one got hurt at the Diablo blockade. It was weird, silly, sometimes poignant and wholly ineffective. At the time, it seemed important. At the time, everything about Diablo Canyon seemed important.

There was no bigger issue in California. It began to emerge in the early 1960s at a time when the Peaceful Atom was still considered a noble goal; environmentalists were known as ecologists then, and stuck mainly to saving trees. Discovery of an offshore earthquake fault, the mess at Three Mile Island and a disclosure that Diablo seismic fortifications were installed with backwards blueprints galvanized the opposition, ran construction costs to more than $2 billion and almost killed the project.

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PG&E;, though, gritted it out, and since 1984 Diablo has been making lots of power--and not much news. Today, it is amazing how thoroughly the plant has been absorbed into the California fabric. The evacuation plan, once a bulky, controversial document, now is distributed on the back of a nature calendar. Call Abalone Alliance, the grass-roots organization that staged the big protest, and a machine answers: “We had a great time at our reunion from the ’81 blockade. Thank you very much. . . . " The only Diablo controversy is how much property taxes PG&E; should pay--quite a tumble from the old days when terms such as China Syndrome and Armageddon colored the debate.

A few of the principal Diablo Canyon opponents have moved away, a logical extension of their conviction that the plant will go haywire in an earthquake. Those who remain keep their gas tanks full and an eye on the wind.

“I would describe it as an uncomfortable peace,” said Nancy Culver, a 47-year-old college English instructor who belongs to Mothers for Peace, a small anti-Vietnam War organization that became the principal litigant against Diablo Canyon. “You learn to live with it. . . . You can’t run away from the Diablo Canyons of the world.”

Mention of the Mothers for Peace brings a flush to the face of John Townsend, the plant manager. Here is how he describes the battle’s main lesson: “All it showed was that a few well-meaning but misguided people can cost the public literally billions of dollars.”

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Strangers, Townsend said, are no longer troubled when they discover where he works: “Likely as not, the person you tell these days has a relative or friend who works here, or their kids are playing Little League with the kid of someone from the plant. . . . It was just a matter of time, and having a good safe operation--and the lack of any event to cause public concern.”

The opponents concede defeat, but they have seen tactics and alliances they developed employed in many other battles. At Diablo, they feel like a winner, but there aren’t many nuclear plants on the boards, and Townsend doubts PG&E; would advise anyone else to try to build one.

Much has happened since 1981. The doomsday vocabulary now includes terms like ozone depletion, HIV-positive, drive-by shooting; the attention once concentrated on Diablo seems the luxury of a simpler time. At any rate, the whole question of who was right and who was wrong about Diablo became moot once they started splitting atoms. It’s best to hope now that the opponents were wrong. The day it’s proven otherwise would be a short one.


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