Still Generating Controversy

Times Staff Writer

Call it fallout from Malibu's nuclear era.

Playwright Charles Marowitz is suffering from it, he says as he points into a ravine beneath his home of more than two decades.

It has nothing to do with the mysterious building hidden near the bottom of the mountain -- where he says local legend has it that an eccentric billionaire once secretly tried to build an atom bomb.

Marowitz's problem involves the ill-fated atomic power plant the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power tried to construct four decades ago in rugged Corral Canyon.

The DWP reluctantly shelved plans for its nuclear station after experts argued that the isolated canyon three miles west of the Malibu Pier was geologically unstable and unsafe for an atomic reactor.

But the city retained ownership of part of the 305-acre nuclear site. And now a slow-moving landslide at the edge of the DWP parcel threatens to undermine multimillion-dollar ocean-view homes owned by Marowitz and his neighbors.

City water and power officials contend that the slope failure is not their problem because they have done nothing to their land to cause it to slide.

In 1963, Los Angeles officials proposed building a San Onofre-style atomic generating plant in Corral Canyon as a solution to the fast-growing city's need for more electricity.

DWP engineers viewed nuclear power as the perfect solution to a looming electricity shortage. The Corral Canyon plant would be larger than any atomic plant in existence and would have the capacity to generate enough power for every home, office, and factory in Los Angeles for four hours a day, the agency predicted.

Unlike oil- and coal-powered generating stations, the atomic plant would be pollution-free and would not contribute to the smog that was blanketing Los Angeles almost daily.

Corral Canyon's isolation was another plus.

The atomic plant would be tucked between hillsides at the bottom of a deep ravine. Seawater pumped from pipes buried under Pacific Coast Highway and the beach and extending half a mile into the ocean would cool the reactor.

The plant's electricity would be carried into Los Angeles by a line of steel transmission towers constructed across the Santa Monica Mountains through Calabasas and connected to the DWP's existing electric grid in the San Fernando Valley.

The deal sounded sweet to Los Angeles officials for other reasons as well.

The federal Atomic Energy Commission was willing to classify the Corral Canyon reactor as a nuclear power demonstration project. As such, the commission would pay up to $8 million for the design of the plant and would waive fuel-use charges of up to another $8.2 million.

City officials thought at first that the atomic plant plan would sail through federal and local reviews. In 1963, they entered into a tentative agreement with the Westinghouse Corp. to buy the generating equipment. The Atomic Energy Commission named a Boston company to design and build the reactor. Officials announced that the plant would be completed by 1967.

But the proposal quickly caused a furor in Malibu, helping galvanize a fledgling environmental movement, leading to the creation of a vast network of public parkland and land-development restrictions throughout the Santa Monica Mountains -- including Corral Canyon.

Malibu celebrities joined in public hearings conducted by Los Angeles County to complain that the coastal area was seismically active.

The thought of a nuclear plant up the road from her beachfront home "makes my hair stand on end," actress Angela Lansbury told the county's Planning Commission.

"The two words 'atomic energy' are the most horror-packed words in the English language. We have harnessed it, but as long as there is a margin for error, I don't think the few in Malibu should be sacrificed for the many."

Singer Frankie Laine cited an incident involving a leaking truck at an Idaho nuclear plant that forced officials to dig up a street and bury the contaminated pavement.

In 1970, after six years of debate and dozens of conflicting geology reports over the canyon's safety, the city quietly dropped an option to buy nearly $100 million worth of equipment that would have launched the first 490,000-kilowatt phase of the atomic plant project.

In the years since, the DWP has all but forgotten the 98 acres of Corral Canyon it still owns. The acreage extends across deep ravines and steep slopes in an area bounded on the east by Corral Canyon Road and on the west by what is now the National Park Service's Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The northern edge of the city's land comes within about 25 feet of Marowitz's two-story home in a small residential enclave called El Nido.

From his front deck he can peer about half a mile down into Solstice Canyon Park. That's where an odd, silo-shaped structure stands in a small clearing.

"We're told that's where Howard Hughes was developing an atomic bomb in the 1940s. They say he closed up shop down there in the '50s," Marowitz said. "They called it the Nuclear Canyon."

The DWP property is closer -- reaching within about 15 feet of his home. The falling slope has undermined part of Sequit Drive, a private roadway in front of his house, causing chunks of asphalt to fall away. A major slope failure could take out the whole road and then his house and neighboring structures, Marowitz says.

The sliding started in 1991 and his fight with the DWP began two years after that, said Marowitz, an author and stage director as well as a playwright of such works as "Sherlock's Last Case," who is married to former actress Jane Windsor.

"It's like being in a Kafka novel," he said of the city's response. "You kind of get lost in a maze when you try to deal with them."

DWP officials say they have responded to each of Marowitz's complaints over the years.

Earlier this year, department surveyors marked the city's property line with stakes, and DWP property managers and lawyers inspected the site, which is about 30 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.

Officials suggest that grading done for the construction of Sequit Drive might have weakened the hillside. Brush clearance and seepage from residential septic tanks may also have contributed to the slippage, DWP officials say.

Since "the slope failure was not the result of any department activity, we do not intend to take any corrective action" on "the department's former nuclear site," DWP General Manager Ronald F. Deaton told Marowitz in February in response to complaints about new storm damage.

As for atomic bombs, the neighboring landowner, the National Park Service, said it could not verify that Hughes ever had any connection with the canyon. His name does not appear on any property records, said Philip Holmes, a park service anthropologist who is compiling a history of the area. There is no record of Hughes' involvement in nuclear bomb-making.

The silo-like structure was built in 1961 by scientists with Space Technology Laboratories Inc. on 10 acres rented from landowner Fred Roberts, Holmes said. Roberts also sold land to the DWP for its power station.

Constructed entirely of wood, the silo building contained no metal that would interfere with the design, assembly and testing of instruments used in early space satellites. Medical magnetic-resonance imaging devices were also created there, according to Holmes.

The isolated site -- far from any electrical motors that could interfere with testing -- was run by scientists from Thompson Ramo Woolridge and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory through 1973. Because of its significance, Holmes said it could eventually be given landmark status.

There is no monument planned for the proposed site of the city's failed attempt to join the nuclear age, however.

And despite the city's continued ownership of the Malibu land, DWP spokeswoman Gale Harris said there was no plan to ever again build a nuclear plant in Corral Canyon.

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