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How Bodega Head almost ended up with a nuclear power plant

Bodega Bay, and nearby Bodega, have deeper histories than most Sonoma County towns. Being a pristine, protected natural harbor will do that for you. Bodega Bay was nearly the landing spot for Sir Francis Drake, although recent finds have pretty conclusively held that Drake’s Bay in nearby Pt. Reyes is properly named. Bodega Bay was named after Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, an explorer for the Spanish Navy –except where HE landed was nearby Tomales Bay. And of course both seaside hamlets are famous for being the locale for the classic Hitchcock thriller “The Birds.”

However, the most significant happening in Bodega Bay is of much more modern vintage. In 1958, four full years before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” ignited the modern environmental movement, PG&E was planning the world’s first commercially viable nuclear power plant. In an absolutely characteristic example of Big Power’s public instincts, they had chosen scenic Bodega Head as the location for this Atomic Age wonder. “What could go wrong?” they chirped. “Nuclear power is clean, safe and limitless!”

Of course, it wasn’t just scenic wonder at stake here. Bodega Head, as most people know, is within spitting distance of the San Andreas Fault (running along the shoreward side of the bay), and even closer to two smaller faults straddling Bodega Head itself.

The full story of the fight over the Bodega Head nuclear plant would be book-length, so please pardon my brevity here. The cast of characters are timeless: on the “pro” side: PG&E itself, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and nuclear advocates across political spectra (at the time, nuclear was considered by many environmentalists to be less damaging than, for example, hydroelectric power from dams). On the “con” side was the whole spectrum: The Sierra Club (or at least factions within it) was concerned about the loss of a wild and scenic place: the local ranchers and fishermen were concerned about the dangers to their livelihood; the nascent New Left that started gaining steam in the early ‘60s were concerned about the antidemocratic nature of the pro-business, pro-development organizations pushing for the plant.

The fight was long, protracted and dirty. From 1958 to 1962, as opposition was just coalescing, PG&E continued planning and started building, getting a series of approvals and permits from apparently compliant state and local governments. The building for the main reactor, located on the harbor side of the Head, included a 70-foot-deep circular pit. As construction continued, the opponents were educating far and wide about the dangers of nuclear power, the earthquake danger, the thermal effects on local fisheries and more. In 1962, “Silent Spring” was published, and the environmental movement grew ever faster: musicians were performing at benefits and writing anti-nuclear songs. However, it was the earthquake danger that eventually served as the deal-breaker: UC Berkeley Conservation Editor David Pesonen, one of the leaders of the opposition, hired Geologist Pierre Saint-Amand to consult on the suitability of the proposed plant site. Saint-Amand found a “spectacular” earthquake fault slicing directly through the deep pit. His testimony that “a worse foundation condition… would be difficult to envision.” His argument was the tipping point, as political supporters started peeling away from PG&E, who at length threw in the towel and suspended construction in October 1963.

What remains at the site today is a quiet spot favored by songbirds. Rainwater filled the pit and turned it into a pond. The rest, you know: when you spot whales at the Head, or walk the trails nearby. If you venture a little bit north, you find the Kortum trail, named after local environmentalist Bill Kortum (1927-2014), one of many citizen leaders of the fight. The reverberations are still being felt today.

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