How Bodega Head almost ended up at a nuclear power station

Bodega Bay and the nearby bodega have a deeper history than most towns in Sonoma County. A pristine, protected natural harbor will do that for you. Bodega Bay was almost the landing site for Sir Francis Drake, although recent finds show rather conclusively that Drake’s Bay was in nearby Pt. Reyes has the real name. Bodega Bay was named after Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, an explorer of the Spanish Navy – except where HE landed near Tomales Bay. And of course both coastal villages are famous for being the location of the classic Hitchcock thriller “The Birds”.

However, the most significant event at Bodega Bay is much more modern. In 1958, four full years before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” sparked the modern environmental movement, PG&E planned the world’s first commercially viable nuclear power plant. As an absolutely signature example of Big Power’s public instincts, they had chosen the picturesque 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, this wasn’t just about scenic wonders. Bodega Head is, as most people know, very close to the San Andreas Fault (which runs along the coast of the bay) and even closer to two smaller faults that span Bodega Head itself.

The full story of the Bodega Head nuclear power plant battle would be book length, so please excuse my brevity here. The cast of the characters is timeless: on the “pro” side: PG&E itself, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and nuclear power proponents in all political spheres (at that time nuclear power was viewed by many environmentalists as less harmful than, for example, hydropower from dams). On the “downside” side, the whole spectrum was: the Sierra Club (or at least factions in it) were concerned about the loss of a wild and scenic place: the local ranchers and fishermen were concerned about the dangers to their livelihoods; The emerging New Left, which gained momentum in the early 1960s, was concerned about the anti-democratic nature of the pro-business and pro-development organizations that pushed for the work.

The fight was long, drawn-out, and dirty. From 1958 to 1962, as the opposition was just consolidating, PG&E continued planning and began construction, receiving a series of permits and permits from seemingly compliant state and local governments. The building for the main reactor, which was on the harbor side of the Head, comprised a 70-foot-deep circular pit. As construction progressed, the opponents provided information far and wide about the dangers of nuclear power, the danger of earthquakes, the thermal effects on local fisheries and more. In 1962 “Silent Spring” was released and the environmental movement grew faster and faster: Musicians appeared at benefit events and wrote anti-nuclear songs. However, it was earthquake hazard that eventually became the deal breaker: David Pesonen, editor of UC Berkeley Conservation, one of the opposition leaders, hired geologist Pierre Saint-Amand to consult on the suitability of the proposed site. Saint-Amand found a “spectacular” earthquake fault that cuts right through the deep pit. His testimony that “a worse founding state … would be difficult to imagine”. His argument was the turning point when political supporters began to break away from PG&E, which eventually threw in the towel in October 1963 and halted construction.

What remains at the site today is a quiet place preferred by songbirds. Rainwater filled the pit and turned it into a pond. You know the rest: when you spot whales at the Head or take a walk on the hiking trails nearby. If you venture a little north, you’ll find the Kortum Trail, named for local environmentalist Bill Kortum (1927-2014), one of the struggle’s many citizen leaders. The reverberation can still be felt today.

Comments are closed.