In The Pipeline: The nuclear plant that never was

I received an interesting e-mail last week: "With all of the nuclear plant concerns in Japan due to the earthquake/tsunami, it might be timely to do a column on Bolsa Island. Most residents of H.B. and very few politicians realize how close we came to having a very large nuclear power plant built at Bolsa Chica State Beach in the 1960s."

The note went on to explain that Bolsa Island would have produced more electricity than the Hoover Dam and provided 250 million gallons a day of desalinated seawater — and that even the city logo has a nuclear symbol on it, which is the only remaining hint at what was to be the Bolsa Island Project.

The note was from Duane Wentworth, son of the late city historian — and my dear friend — Alicia Wentworth, and so how wonderfully appropriate to have the Wentworth name attached once more to a city history piece. Here we go.

Duane was kind enough to share his historic materials with me, and it's fascinating stuff. I'd heard scant few details about this project over the years, and now, to see it all brought to life like this was startling.

According to Duane, a human-made island called Bolsa Island was to have existed, just south of Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway.

From a 131-page Department of the Interior cost overview to a wildly enthusiastic piece from national columnist James J. Kilpatrick to a slickly produced sales brochure, this project did seem to generate a ton of enthusiastic heat, as it were.

As a New York Times headline from May 20, 1967, trumpeted, "Johnson Approves Start on $444-Million Project." The article began, "President Johnson signed today a bill authorizing a start of a $444-million project to use the power of the atom to turn sea water into fresh water. The desalting plant will be built off the coast of California, and the goal is to turn out 150 million gallons of fresh water a day."

Five days later, in Kilpatrick's widely read column, these words appeared: "…the approval of Bolsa Island will be seen as one of the most valuable acts of the 90th Congress… The whole bold venture speaks eloquently of what can be achieved by science, private capital and government, working together."

He went on to describe the 40-acre island just offshore, which was to include not one but two nuclear power plants "built to withstand the shock of earthquakes."

We were even on Ike's radar.

In June 1968, former President Dwight Eisenhower, a great believer in the "atomic desalting of water," wrote in a Reader's Digest article of his support for these kinds of operations all over the world. "The Middle East plants, like the Bolsa Island installation, would be dual-purpose: In addition to water, they would produce an enormous amount of electric power," he wrote.

But perhaps the most flagrant piece of Bolsa Island propaganda was the feel-good, question-answer sales brochure released to the public. Even by the sunny standards of 1960s look-to-the-future nukes optimism, this piece seemed to be stretching things to the hilt.

While the brochure does include some impressive (and exhaustive) background as to the whys, wants and needs of such a project, when it comes to addressing public concerns about having a nuclear facility at Bolsa Chica State Beach, things seem a bit, well, naïve by today's standards.

In answer to "Does the use of nuclear energy at the source of power create undue hazards to the public?" is a flat "No," with a dismissive explanation attached.

"How about radioactivity from the plant?" Not to worry, miniscule amounts akin to standing next to a television set.

"Could an earthquake damage the plant?" Nope, it will be built to withstand even the biggest earthquake.

"What effect will the island have on the beaches in the area?" May have some effect on movement on sand but not to worry — any lost sand would be restored.

"What about the effect of storm waves? Or how about earthquake-caused waves?" Again, relax, everyone. Special "wave armor" around the seaward portions of the island will be 35 feet above sea level.

It goes on, with nice pictures, charts and more questions and answers. There's even a plan outlined to use Bolsa Island as an "anchor" for a 4-mile long harbor and marina development with slips for 3,000 boats. And landscaping to "provide the most pleasing appearance either from shore or from sea."

"The project got canceled when the seismic report came back and they had to strengthen everything on the project," Duane said. "That plus increased labor and material costs pushed the estimate from $444 million to $765 million. So Cal Edison dropped out of the project, which started a domino effect with the other partners, and the whole thing just imploded."

Somewhere, I'm guessing, Duane's mom is rolling her eyes at this plan, especially in view of the catastrophic scenario happening in Japan right now.

The late 1960s was a different age with different attitudes about nuclear power and the environment. Still, it's hard not to think that Huntington Beach dodged a major nuclear bullet when this idea sank.

I'm not sure I can ever drive by or walk along this piece of beach and not think about how different life would have been here in the shadow of Bolsa Island.


'Then & Now' signing

By the way, from 3 to 4 p.m. Saturday, I'll be signing copies of my new book, "Orange County Then & Now," at the International Surfing Museum, 411 Olive Ave., Huntington Beach. At 2 p.m., I'll be conducting a then and now walking tour of downtown, meeting at the head of the pier at the kiosk in front of Duke's.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at

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