In 1963 PG&E, California’s largest provider of electricity, announced plans to build a nuclear power plant on the Nipomo Dunes in San Luis Obispo County. Executives foresaw few problems. But opposition soon emerged, and from an unlikely source. Kathleen Jackson (1907–2001) was a Central Coast housewife and avid hiker. She loved the dunes. Against prohibitive odds, she succeeded in getting PG&E to move the plant some thirty miles north, to Diablo Canyon. But this decision fueled further opposition, also from an unlikely group, Mothers for Peace (MFP), based in San Luis Obispo. For more than a decade, MFP joined lawsuits targeting what they viewed as PG&E’s lackadaisical approach to safety issues. By 1981, a massive protest movement had emerged. That September, as low-level testing began, nearly 20,000 protesters blockaded the plant. Women played prominent roles in this effort as well, publicly linking the nuclear industry to patriarchal control of society. Diablo Canyon Power Plant went online in the mid-1980s, but opposition remained, as MFP continued to participate in lawsuits and publicize safety issues. Meanwhile, public polling revealed growing opposition to nuclear power in general. In 2016, PG&E announced it would shutter the plant in 2026. Executives did not acknowledge their role, but those largely responsible were women who kept the issue of nuclear power front and center in California for more than a half century.

Kathleen Jackson was a middle-aged housewife living on California’s Central Coast when, in early 1963, she read an article in a local newspaper announcing that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) had purchased nearly twelve hundred acres of the Nipomo Dunes to build the state’s first nuclear power plant. The eighteen-mile stretch of land straddled two counties, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. It featured a spectacular landscape (Figure 1). Towering, sculpted sands reached heights of five hundred feet in places before falling off to gentle hills, blown by winds into angled patterns resembling crookedly plowed fields that ultimately tumbled down to hard-packed sand and a white-capped ocean. Scattered mounds of native plants broke up the vast emptiness: coreopsis, ceanothus, purple sage, orange poppies. The region was home to many species of birds and animals, some endangered. The plant would be built in San Luis Obispo County, which was then sparsely populated, with slightly more than 90,000 residents clustered in a handful of towns from Nipomo north to San Miguel. The county’s economy relied mostly on agriculture—fishing, farming, and ranching—and on businesses affiliated with farming and ranching. Agriculture was also a major focus of California Polytechnic State College (now University), the region’s only public four-year institution.1

Figure 1.

Nipomo Dunes, photographed by Kathleen A. Cairns on December 5, 2021. In the 1960s, PG&E planned to build a nuclear power plant on the pristine Nipomo Dunes, but a one-woman campaign to stop the gigantic utility forced it to move the plant thirty miles up the coast.

Courtesy of the author

Figure 1.

Nipomo Dunes, photographed by Kathleen A. Cairns on December 5, 2021. In the 1960s, PG&E planned to build a nuclear power plant on the pristine Nipomo Dunes, but a one-woman campaign to stop the gigantic utility forced it to move the plant thirty miles up the coast.

Courtesy of the author

Close modal

The Nipomo Dunes had a long and colorful history. Rumor had it that Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola had ridden through the area in the late 1760s, on his way from San Diego to Monterey. Purportedly, he had killed a “skinny bear”—Oso Flaco—hence the name of the small lake that serves as an entry point to the dunes. In the 1920s, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille used the dunes as a backdrop for his silent-film classic The Ten Commandments. Shortly thereafter, a group of bohemians arrived and created a commune, designed to be a place of solitude and enlightenment. Nominally led by Chester A. Arthur III (called Gavin), the grandson of the former president, commune dwellers included artists, writers, and iconoclasts. Dubbed “Dunites,” they grew their own food, ate fish they caught, and lived in cabins they constructed out of scavenged wood. Oil was discovered in the 1940s, about the time the commune was dissolved. Over the ensuing decades, various oil companies purchased much of the land. PG&E had bought it from the Union Oil Corporation.2

Jackson was a Sierra Club activist who loved the dunes and hiked there every chance she got, though she knew little of the dunes’ history when she set out on what virtually everyone viewed as a Panglossian campaign to save them. The fact that she was a woman in a larger political system controlled entirely by powerful men did not deter her. Nor did it deter the many other women who proved pivotal in challenging a political system that believed it could craft policies that impacted millions of lives without input from individuals and communities directly affected by them. At the beginning, there were few reasons to expect such a reckoning. Most Americans did not want to hear about potential problems; they just wanted cheap and clean energy, and PG&E aimed to give it to them.

PG&E provided—and still provides—electric power to two-thirds of California, which grew exponentially in the decades after World War II. Population growth fueled demand for new sources of energy, and nuclear energy seemed a promising solution. It was touted as clean, safe, reliable, and inexpensive. But it had to be sold to a public that viewed nuclear energy through the lens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not electricity. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Atomic Energy Act, which regulated nuclear power for both military and domestic uses via the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). As historian Thomas Wellock explains, proponents of peacetime nuclear energy referred to the second function as “Atoms for Peace.” To garner support, the business community eagerly framed nuclear energy as the basis of “a new American culture.” Ads depicted white suburban housewives in glistening kitchens, surrounded by shiny new electric appliances, and Walt Disney created a cartoon, “Our Friend the Atom.” The AEC even sponsored an ad suggesting that Americans “go and play in the nuclear power park.” It depicted a landscaped garden next to an atomic information center. This rosy scenario sought to significantly downplay problems and defuse questions, most notably: How safe was nuclear energy?3

An early group of women activists—the vanguard of what would become, over the next decade, an explosion of protest movements—did publicly question the safety of nuclear power. However, they were focused on the proliferation of bombs, not power plants. In November 1961, an estimated 50,000 women across the country, most from the organization Women Strike for Peace, took to the nation’s streets. Many pushed baby strollers and carried placards reading “End the Arms Race, Not the Human Race.” In Los Angeles, writes historian Amy Swerdlow, some four thousand women massed on “the steps of the State Building, demanding an end to the stockpiling and testing of nuclear weapons.” Women Strike for Peace understood that “to reach and sway the average woman and her representatives in Congress, they would have to reach and sway the media.” Kathleen Jackson was not part of a movement, but she, too, tacitly understood the power of media to shape public opinion.4

With much of its eleven-hundred-mile coastline still undeveloped, California seemed fertile ground for nuclear power plants, which needed water for cooling reactors. PG&E and other energy providers foresaw the opportunity for extraordinary profits in the new technology, notes one historian, as well as “a vast need,” with “the number of people in PG&E’s service area increasing from eight-and-a-half million in 1965 to over eleven-and-a-half by 1975.”5 In the late 1950s, the company announced plans to build nearly a dozen facilities spanning the state, north to south. Since many Californians supported the notion of cheap, clean energy and the potential for tax revenue and jobs, company officials envisioned few obstacles. Troubling questions were ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, as were the skeptics, but the early warnings proved prescient.6

The initial warning came in the small town of Bodega Bay, an hour north of San Francisco. Mostly noted as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, in the late 1950s it had been announced as the site for PG&E’s first large, commercially viable facility. It was to be built on Bodega Head, a rocky promontory that shelters the bay below. Many businesses, local government officials, and residents offered enthusiastic support. But the positive reception was not unanimous. As in later antinuclear campaigns, it was a woman who first raised red flags. Rose Gaffney had spent her life in the area, farming a large piece of land. As she recalled in a 1971 interview, “I was dead set against locating a nuclear power plant there. I raised a helluva lot more noise about the damn foolishness of the whole deal.”7

After PG&E used eminent domain to buy sixty-five acres of her property at $1,000 an acre, Gaffney contacted the Sierra Club, the nation’s most prominent conservation organization. Its primary emphasis had long been on wilderness via hikes and camping trips, though longtime executive director David Brower maintained later that the Sierra Club “was never a hiking organization. It had different goals from time to time. But it was in legislative battles all the way along.” Then based mostly in California, the Sierra Club had begun to tiptoe into other states and issues, including efforts to stop planned hydroelectric dams in Dinosaur National Monument on the borders of Colorado and Utah and in Arizona. The organization sold this mission partly through the sale of glossy publications that featured stunning nature photographs from longtime member Ansel Adams, and through Brower’s near-constant fundraising efforts.8

Bodega Bay represented the Sierra Club’s first foray into the politics of nuclear energy. The organization had no official position on nuclear power, but club policy, according to Brower, was that “no scenic resource on the coast…should be sacrificed to a power development.” However, neither Brower nor other club officials proved willing to challenge PG&E. “I wavered,” Brower said later. “I could have been tougher.” Campaigns to stop dam construction complicated matters. Some club leaders viewed nuclear energy as an alternative to dams. But Rose Gaffney found some members who felt as she did. David Pesonen, a young Sierra Club staff member and law student, was strongly opposed to the proposed Bodega Bay plant. At a time when deference to authority prevailed, Pesonen feared that too many people “had abdicated control of their lives and political power to a small and elite corps of nuclear experts.”9

To stop the Bodega Bay plant, Pesonen wrote investigative pieces warning of the potential for accidents and radioactive leaks. He recruited faculty from the University of California, Berkeley, to lecture on the dangers. San Francisco Bay Area activists also got involved, including Jean Kortum, a Democratic Party activist, and Doris Sloan, a community organizer who later became a geology professor at UC Berkeley. Plant opponents filed lawsuits and mounted a recall campaign against a pro-plant Sonoma County supervisor. Folksingers and jazz musicians performed to raise money. After a geologist, accompanied by Sloan, discovered an earthquake fault nearby, PG&E abandoned the site. But the discovery did not doom PG&E’s ambitions: soon officials announced plans to build a plant on the Nipomo Dunes. PG&E thought the land was worthless, “just a bunch of sand dunes,” said Sierra Club board member Richard Leonard, but “excellent for nuclear power, since plants require five hundred to a thousand acres of vacant space.”10

PG&E’s announcement brought Kathleen Jackson into the battle. Her campaign ultimately fueled an existential crisis in the venerable Sierra Club and forced the organization to take a position on nuclear power. Debates over its use turned longtime friends and allies into bitter adversaries and ultimately compelled the club to enlarge its focus to include environmental issues in urban areas, places far removed from the isolated wildernesses with which the public associated it. The same postwar growth that fueled a demand for cheap sources of energy had also created crowded cities, worsening air quality, industrial waste, and other problems caused by rampant and unregulated development.

Jackson and her dunes campaign may have been the catalyst in broadening the Sierra Club’s agenda, but women were already taking the lead in other California environmental campaigns. In Los Angeles, tired of official inaction on deteriorating air quality, female activists created the group Stamp Out Smog. Fires and flooding in the Santa Monica Mountains caused by overbuilding led to “Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains, Parks and Seashore.” The Bay Area saw towns, airports, and neighborhoods built on landfill made from decades of dumped industrial waste. In addition to making the bay smaller, the landfill smelled like garbage. The Save the San Francisco Bay Association aimed to stop the dumping and to limit the development via the state-mandated Bay Conservation Development Commission. Like Kathleen Jackson, the women organizers were white, middle-class housewives. As such, they largely ignored the serious problems facing working-class and minority communities, including freeways that displaced entire neighborhoods and the dumping of toxic wastes near homes and schools. Activism on that front would come later.11

Jackson did not set out to challenge Sierra Club leadership or to blow up its agenda. But her passion for the dunes trumped everything else in her life. It is safe to say that virtually no one could have foreseen her eventual role in that effort. She had led an interesting and adventuresome life, though not one in which she overtly challenged authority, and she was not particularly political. Born Kathleen Goddard in Sacramento in 1907, reared in Santa Barbara, she dropped out of college to travel through Europe, largely alone. In letters home, Kathleen wrote to her parents about drinking wine and midnight sojourns watching prostitutes as they waited on the streets for clients. Dull and disheveled in the daytime, they bloomed at night, she wrote. In her early twenties, Kathleen married Ali Shirazi Parvaz, an Iranian pilot she met in a San Francisco rug store. The couple lived in India, Burma, and Iran but eventually divorced. She lived in New York for a time and worked for NBC as a publicist. In 1945, back on California’s Central Coast, she married Duncan P. Jackson, a businessman who grew almonds for the Hershey chocolate company. Although the couple adopted five children, Jackson soon discovered that domesticity alone was not enough for her, so she joined the Sierra Club. For more than a decade, she participated in club hiking and camping trips, but she mostly remained in the background, as was expected of women in a male-led organization.12

Women did write and edit individual chapter newsletters, however, filled with information about local activities and members. Jackson edited the “Condor Call,” a publication of the Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo chapter.13 At that time, club newsletters contained little about politics, though that would change. Jackson took on a larger role in the 1950s, when she helped organize a publicity campaign to stop construction of a dam on federal land in Dinosaur National Park. It seems likely that her years of work as an NBC publicist led Sierra Club leaders to seek her help. Jackson inaugurated a letter-writing campaign, put together fundraisers, and organized float trips down the Green River in Colorado.14 In 1956, the Sierra Club’s executive board tapped Jackson to become chair of the council that oversaw all local chapters. She enjoyed the job, she later said, except for the meetings, which were “too long, just too much talk.” After two years, Jackson resigned; she never sought or held a Sierra Club leadership position again.15

Jackson first hiked the dunes in the summer of 1961 (Figure 2). The “white, windswept wilderness” moved her nearly beyond words, as she later recalled. She returned every chance she got. Sometimes she hiked alone, other times with fellow Sierra Club members. On January 1, 1962, she inaugurated the first of what would become an annual New Year’s Day hike. A year later, when she read about PG&E’s purchase of the dunes and its plans for a nuclear plant, Jackson was distraught. Despite discouragement on every front, she refused to acknowledge how little chance she had of thwarting the giant utility. She also ignored her husband, who warned that “you can’t take on PG&E. I won’t let you humiliate yourself.”16 Jackson experienced skepticism, and some outright hostility, from San Luis Obispo County residents who supported the proposed power plant because it promised tax revenue. Some Sierra Club colleagues opposed her as well, fearing that her campaign would divert attention from club efforts to preserve other wilderness areas. But Jackson remained undaunted.17

Figure 2.

Kathleen Goddard Jackson Jones celebrating her ninetieth birthday hiking at Nipomo Dunes. Jones, an unlikely activist, was a middle-aged housewife and avid hiker when she began her unrelenting campaign to save the dunes.

Courtesy of MS0173-Kathleen Goddard Jones correspondence, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Figure 2.

Kathleen Goddard Jackson Jones celebrating her ninetieth birthday hiking at Nipomo Dunes. Jones, an unlikely activist, was a middle-aged housewife and avid hiker when she began her unrelenting campaign to save the dunes.

Courtesy of MS0173-Kathleen Goddard Jones correspondence, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Close modal

Publicity, as she had learned in the Dinosaur campaign, was the key to stopping PG&E. Jackson contacted local and regional news outlets and attended every city council or county board of supervisors meeting at which the dunes were discussed. She used billboards throughout the county to invite people to hike the dunes with her, and dozens showed up. As they hiked, Jackson paused to discuss PG&E’s plans. Describing John Muir’s failed effort to stop the flooding and damming of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide water for San Francisco, she warned that “once a resource is gone, it’s gone.”18

PG&E officials were aware of Jackson’s campaign to save the dunes by the middle of 1963. Though they generally dismissed her as “probably a rich busybody,” as one participant recalled, the $4 million Bodega Bay debacle had taught the company to take nothing for granted. Their introduction to Jackson at a luncheon organized by San Luis Obispo County business leaders did little to change their minds. “You’re the only person [in the county] to oppose the plant,” a PG&E representative told Jackson. “So they tell me,” she responded. Then she invited the men on a dune hike.19 She suggested the men wear hats and clothes suitable for hiking on shifting sands; she urged them to bring sunscreen, water, and food. They showed up sans sunscreen and water, hatless, and wearing neatly pressed slacks and tennis shoes. Jackson was nearly twenty years older than her fellow hikers, yet they struggled to keep up, trudging across the slippery terrain until they reached the hard-packed sand at water’s edge. Tired, thirsty, sunburned, and hungry by the hike’s end, they invited her to lunch. She accepted but insisted on paying for her own meal. Then she surprised her hosts by asking, “Isn’t there some other place you can build?” Back at PG&E’s San Francisco headquarters, one of the men warned his supervisor, “She’s another Rose Gaffney. Tough as nails.”20

By herself, Jackson might have seemed relatively harmless, but her Sierra Club affiliation worried company officials. She needed to be handled with care, lest her opposition draw support from others in the nearly 40,000-member organization. To assuage her concerns and subtly flatter her, PG&E offered to fly Jackson via private plane to Humboldt to view a prototype plant then under construction. Seemingly immune to flattery, she was only hardened in her opposition by the visit. At the site, Jackson asked a plant employee what the company planned to do with spent radioactive fuel. “We don’t know yet,” he responded. On the ride home, PG&E representative Ken Diercks surprised Jackson by asking, casually, where she would put a power plant, if she had a say in the matter. She talked about the numerous “slot canyons” along the coastline in San Luis Obispo County, which held many oak trees but were otherwise not particularly unique.21

Diercks may have been speaking metaphorically, but Jackson took him literally: PG&E could be persuaded to move the proposed plant. Jackson decided that the Sierra Club would be key to facilitating any PG&E resiting decision. However, getting club support proved a daunting task. In the years since Bodega Bay, Sierra Club leaders had developed strong and divergent opinions on nuclear power. Historically, the club had discouraged public debates and disagreements among members. By the mid-1960s, however, two factions had emerged within the club: moderates who viewed compromise as the most effective tool and “radicals” who refused to compromise their antinuclear stance. Sierra Club president Will Siri, a biophysicist and world-renowned climber who had summited Mt. Everest, belonged to the first group. The second group believed that nuclear power represented a catastrophic threat to society.22 In fact, David Pesonen, the young lawyer who had successfully organized opposition to PG&E’s Bodega Bay nuclear power plant, had already quit the Sierra Club because it refused to join that effort. As he said later, “I realized that scenic values alone didn’t carry much weight against PG&E’s political clout.”23 At this point, executive director Brower straddled the two sides. He did not necessarily oppose nuclear power, he said, but wanted to “put it in a place that will not spoil any more of our coast.”24

Hoping to gain an important ally in her campaign, in early January 1965 Jackson invited Siri on a dune hike. He had never been to the dunes. She also recruited Ansel Adams, who came along to take photos, and Brower. Local media showed up, including television reporters. During the hike, the group “trudged, rather than walked about a mile and a half,” according to reporters. As Jackson had hoped, Siri was awestruck by the beauty of the landscape. He had not understood how magnificent the dunes were, he told her. Siri became a convert to Jackson’s campaign to relocate PG&E’s power plant. His support proved crucial.25

News of the effort to move the plant out of San Luis Obispo County brought renewed protest and outrage from residents, who feared lost jobs and tax revenue. They blamed Jackson, who received threats and, in an era before the widespread use of unlisted numbers, harassing late-night phone calls. Jackson refused to back down. Her continued activism also angered her husband, who feared it would negatively impact his business. With their children mostly grown, the couple divorced, and saving the dunes became Jackson’s sole focus. She advertised weekly hikes in club newsletters. “Can You Help Save the Nipomo Dunes?” was the common thread. And, with Siri, she quietly began searching for a potential replacement site.26

The moderate Sierra Club contingent viewed working with PG&E and negotiating as the best strategy; after all, PG&E had the money and the clout to refuse any change in plans.27 Jackson believed that “private negotiations avoided embarrassment,” like PG&E’s experience in Bodega. She reached out to Conservation Associates, an organization that raised money for environmental projects and facilitated conversations among corporations, public entities, and conservationists. It was led by two women: Dorothy Varian, widow of a wealthy businessman and a longtime resident of San Luis Obispo County, and Doris Leonard, wife of Sierra Club board member Richard Leonard. Conservation Associates proved receptive. Varian and her family had been “coming to the Dunes for years,” Richard Leonard said. Saving the Nipomo Dunes became the group’s first major project. “Send us everything you have, especially about geology,” Varian told Jackson.28

Throughout much of 1965, Jackson searched for an alternative site. Since she knew the area better than other Sierra Club leaders, Siri let her take the lead. Jackson ultimately settled on Diablo Canyon, located about thirty miles north of the dunes and seven miles west of the small town of Avila Beach (Figure 3). Now an upscale tourist town, in the 1960s Avila Beach was best known for processing and shipping oil. To Jackson, Diablo seemed ordinary, a “gash, a slot on a steep canyon hillside,” undistinguishable from dozens of others along the coast, with grassy, oak-covered fields abutting cliffs that sloped down to rocky outcroppings and beaches along the coastline. The Santa Lucia Mountains separated the canyon from the more populated areas, so a plant could not be seen except from the ocean. The “coastal rocks,” however, would be affected. “Sculptured by the waves,” they “were rich with sea lions, sea birds, and abalone.” Destruction of sea life later became a focal point for opponents of the Diablo plant site.29

Figure 3.

PG&E Diablo Canyon Power Plant. After abandoning the Nipomo Dunes site, PG&E chose to build in Diablo Canyon, near Avila Beach, setting off near-constant protest over safety issues.

Courtesy of Mark Evanoff Papers on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Figure 3.

PG&E Diablo Canyon Power Plant. After abandoning the Nipomo Dunes site, PG&E chose to build in Diablo Canyon, near Avila Beach, setting off near-constant protest over safety issues.

Courtesy of Mark Evanoff Papers on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Close modal

After briefly touring the area, Jackson prepared to convince Sierra Club leaders to approve her choice. In May 1966, the organization’s board of directors met in San Francisco to discuss Diablo. For many, it was the first they had heard that PG&E would consider a new site. Siri told fellow board members that approving Diablo was the only way to save the dunes. In her presentation to the board, Jackson described Diablo as an isolated coastal canyon.30 Three of the fifteen board members were absent; two others abstained. Voting 9–1 in favor, the board determined that “the Nipomo Dunes should be preserved, unimpaired for scenic and recreational use under state Management,” and declared Diablo Canyon a “satisfactory alternative site.” Shortly thereafter, PG&E announced its decision to abandon the dunes and move the proposed plant to Diablo. Company representatives also announced that they had “taken a lease” on five hundred acres in the canyon and “planned to have the plant operable in five years” (actually, the lease covered nearly six hundred acres). PG&E estimated the total cost at slightly more than $300 million.31

Rather than ending debate, however, the vote unleashed a backlash. Board member Fred Eissler, a Santa Barbara high school teacher and member of the club’s antinuclear contingent, had been the lone dissenter. He was outraged. Eissler did not trust PG&E and pleaded with his fellow board members to create an official policy on nuclear power before deciding on the siting of any plant. Approving Diablo, he said, was “tantamount to approving a dangerous nuclear generator.” He also did not trust Kathleen Jackson. In 1963, he had criticized her for agreeing to visit PG&E’s prototype plant in Humboldt. Since she was not a member of the Sierra Club’s board, some felt that Jackson was interfering in issues that did not concern her. He doubted that Jackson possessed the technical training required for a tour of the prototype plant, warning that she would “be snowed” by PG&E guides. Eissler was not alone in opposing Jackson’s interactions with PG&E. Another board member admonished her that “it is not the function of the Sierra Club or any of its representatives to be apologists, public relations people, or anything of this kind for PG&E.”32

Martin Litton, Sunset Magazine’s photo editor and a new board member, had been in Baghdad, Iraq, during the original vote. He expressed dismay with the decision. He had photographed Diablo. It was “not treeless,” he told fellow board members. “It had a large grove with some of the world’s largest oaks.” Diablo was also “the best-preserved tidal zone in California,” with “masses of abalone and sea lions,” and it contained a sacred burial ground of the local Chumash tribe.33 David Brower, still on the fence about nuclear power plants, knew only that he “wanted them in a place that was already developed, instead of a relatively unspoiled piece of coast.” He was unaware, he later acknowledged, that the AEC had barred reactors in developed areas. He attributed the choice of Diablo to Jackson, but also to Dorothy Varian of Conservation Associates. “She had lots of money,” he said.34

Brower could not vote on club policy, but he could lobby board members. After viewing Litton’s aerial photographs of Diablo and talking with Eissler, he became convinced that the initial vote had been a mistake. Brower and Eissler approached the three absent board members and sought their help to revisit and hopefully overturn the original vote. Jackson’s colleagues in her local Sierra Club chapter also piled on; some even accused her of working for PG&E. They had not been consulted on the matter, local members said, and had been blindsided by the news. “A good many of the local group,” who were not notified in any way, “were violently opposed,” said one member. They too urged the board to reconsider its decision.35

Jackson held her ground, but privately she expressed embarrassment that Litton’s photos revealed how casually she had selected Diablo. She had only gone to the mouth of the canyon, no further. “I felt very disturbed. I wrestled with my conscience. It is a grave responsibility…to alter forever a piece of God’s earth.” But the dunes were worth it, she insisted later. “I felt the saving of the Dunes…a more unique piece of the earth than Diablo Canyon,” was the “primary concern.”36

Diablo opponents pushed the executive board to revisit the vote in the fall of 1966. They also sought a moratorium on the building of nuclear power plants until their safety could be ascertained. The second vote upheld the first vote, although the club approved the moratorium (not including Diablo). Brower had, by then, begun to turn against nuclear power, though he had not yet entirely joined the antinuclear side. “I was becoming increasingly worried about the storage problem,” he said. William Siri empathized, to a degree. “As a conservationist,” Siri explained, “I have to agree that no development along the coast would be desirable.” But he was a realist, noting that “we live in an energy-based society.” Siri bemoaned the growing conflict within the club, which was sapping “the club’s energy.”37

Board member Richard Leonard, who had supported the board’s original decision, decried the schism, which he later called “one of the most serious divisions within the Sierra Club” since the early twentieth-century battle over damming Hetch Hetchy. Leonard blamed Litton. “He was, I feel, unfair,” and his staunch anti-Diablo position was harming “the effectiveness of the Sierra Club.” Despite two decisive pro-Diablo votes, the anti-Diablo side refused to give in, instead calling for a referendum in which all Sierra Club members could vote directly on this issue. By this time, national media had begun to cover the growing schism. Gladwin Hill of the New York Times dubbed it “a showdown between devotees of the organization’s original role as a ‘hiking club’ and those favoring its new role as a watchdog against despoliation of the natural environment.” By this point, Kathleen Jackson was persona non grata to many in the Sierra Club who blamed her obsession with the dunes for fueling the unprecedented and embarrassingly public fight.38

By a margin of 11,341 to 5,225, the April 1967 referendum upheld the board’s original decision on Diablo, but the vote did not end the controversy. Ansel Adams, long a revered figure in the Sierra Club and beyond, added new fuel. His iconic black-and-white nature photos had brought him fame and the club public esteem—not to mention money, when his photos appeared in glossy Sierra Club books. Adams was widely viewed as an artist, not a political figure, but the conflict over Diablo placed him squarely in the latter category. Adams agreed to allow those who favored resiting the plant at Diablo to use his photos as campaign materials. Those who opposed PG&E’s plans to build at Diablo now railed against Adams, charging that he had given the other side an unfair advantage. The Diablo controversy permanently shattered the relationship of Adams and Brower, who had been close friends and allies for decades.39

Over the following year, the board took more votes, each one upholding the original decision by various margins. In September 1968, though it changed nothing, the board acknowledged by a 9–5 vote that it had made “a mistake of principle and policy in attempting to bargain away an area of unique scenic beauty.” Diablo opponents created their own organization, the Scenic Shoreline Preservation Conference. They aimed to impede PG&E’s progress via continual challenges to state and federal agencies. They began immediately. The California Public Utilities Commission and the AEC had approved plans for Diablo in 1967, and Scenic Shoreline appealed their decision to the California Supreme Court. The CPUC, it charged, had “pitted the resources of the largest public utility of California against…members of the public who [did] not command the funds and expertise necessary to conduct independent investigations.” The court denied the appeal. In 1968, the AEC granted PG&E a permit to begin construction on Diablo’s first reactor. A permit for construction of the second reactor came in 1970. Scenic Shoreline lost appeals on both.40

The acrimonious debate over Diablo ultimately cost Brower his job. By 1968, he was on the path to becoming a staunch antinuclearist. “I was becoming increasingly worried about the [fuel] storage problem,” he told an interviewer. In 1969, he attended a nuclear reactor salesmen’s convention. An industry spokesman “skipped over the issue. I was becoming more and more worried.” That same year, he took leave from his job as executive director and announced plans to run for a seat on the Sierra Club’s board, where he hoped to turn the organization against nuclear energy. When he lost, he tendered his resignation.41

Not everyone was sorry to see him go. Over the years, Brower had alienated many with his cavalier approach to money and insistence on autonomy. For example, he recruited Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb, a book offering dire predictions about the perils of continued growth. In 1966, without board approval, he had submitted a full-page advertisement to the New York Times opposing a proposed dam in the Grand Canyon. Because the Sierra Club was a nonprofit enterprise, the Internal Revenue Service subsequently revoked its tax-exempt status. To some, his refusal to accept defeat on Diablo seemed largely driven by ego. Brower suggested later that PG&E had maneuvered his ouster. He soon announced the formation of a new organization, Friends of the Earth. Headquartered in San Francisco, it “quickly became the leader in the international antinuclear effort.” Brower also joined the controversial zero-population movement, which argued that too many people fueled more environmental problems, an argument that many came to see as racist and classist.42

The Sierra Club soon came to embrace a much broader agenda that included issues of open space, water quality, and power development. It dropped its long-standing requirement that each prospective member obtain the signatures of two sponsors, which, in an organization with a predominantly white membership, would limit new membership among people of color. And it tacitly acknowledged women’s emerging leadership in the broader environmental movement, supporting the campaigns of both Save the Bay and the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains. The club’s support of Save the Bay, led by Berkeley residents Catherine (Kay) Kerr, Esther Gulick, and Sylvia McLaughlin, represented the first time in its history that the environment of a major urban area had received the club’s attention. The two organizations also shared leaders, as when former Sierra Club president Will Siri became head of Save the Bay. The San Francisco Bay, acknowledged the club, was “priceless and needed to be preserved.” Similarly, the club signed on to efforts to stop development in the Santa Monica Mountains led by Los Angeles residents Sue Nelson, Margot Feuer, and Jill Swift. Swift belonged to the Sierra Club and led hikes through the canyons. Like Kathleen Jackson, she used the outings to warn of the consequences of lost habitat, in the process recruiting more people to the cause.43

Jackson’s choice of Diablo had precipitated the crisis, but as the conflict escalated, her focus shifted back to the dunes. Still an avid hiker, she was no longer particularly active in the Sierra Club, in part because many of her former colleagues viewed her as a troublemaker. She should have kept quiet, they said, and let PG&E put the plant on the dunes. Meanwhile, she had a new life partner, Gaylord Jones, whom she met at a meeting of the local Native Plant Society. She continued to lead dune hikes, while lobbying state officials to turn the landscape into a park. Others had lobbied for this status earlier, but the price tag seemed too high. In 1964, California voters passed a $150 million bond measure and Jackson began working with a variety of state, federal, and local agencies to make this vision a reality.44

Meanwhile, other groups opposed to Diablo soon emerged, some led by women. Among the most active was Mothers for Peace (MFP), which began in 1969 as an anti–Vietnam War group after, according to an L.A. newspaper, a San Luis Obispo woman “wrote a letter to a local newspaper suggesting that people against the war should get together.” Some members had never been active in politics, while others had been active but only in such organizations as the PTA. In its initial iteration, MFP marched, passed out leaflets, showed films, held candlelight vigils, and sponsored antiwar speakers. When the United States left Vietnam, members turned their attention to Diablo (Figure 4). “We’ve never been a one-issue group,” a member later told a reporter. “The question has always been what can we do to prevent needless loss of life?”45

Figure 4.

Mothers for Peace (MFP) automobile bumper sticker. MFP began as an antiwar group in the late 1960s, but shifted its focus to the dangers of nuclear power in the 1970s.

Courtesy of Records of the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University

Figure 4.

Mothers for Peace (MFP) automobile bumper sticker. MFP began as an antiwar group in the late 1960s, but shifted its focus to the dangers of nuclear power in the 1970s.

Courtesy of Records of the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University

Close modal

The shift of MFP, headquartered in San Luis Obispo, to antinuclear activism coincided with the revelation of the Hosgri Fault, located less than three miles from the proposed plant site. The fault had been discovered in the late 1960s, after PG&E had already broken ground for the plant but had not begun construction. PG&E failed to publicly disclose the discovery until 1973. When asked about the delayed revelation, a spokesman said the company “didn’t think it was that important.” PG&E refused to temporarily stop construction, even after numerous public requests that it do so. Instead, it embarked on a PR campaign to convince the public that the plant would be safe, noting that it was designed to withstand a quake measuring 6.75 on the Richter scale. But the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Hosgri Fault was large enough to produce a 7.5 magnitude quake.46 This was too much for MFP leader Sandy Silver. “It’s our lives they are playing with,” she insisted, “and we who will pay for their mistakes.”47 Diablo proponents derided MFP’s activism, calling its members “a bunch of frustrated housewives” and “traitors to the nation.”48

MFP’s most important strategy was legal. In 1973, when PG&E applied for an operating permit, MFP protested, citing a series of problematic issues: the possibility of a catastrophic earthquake, concerns about the effects of low-level radiation, the accidental release of radiation, transportation of nuclear fuel, the lack of emergency plans, and potential sabotage. The group sought and the court granted “intervenor” status, acknowledging that they had a vested interest in court challenges, even though they were not actual plaintiffs. Over the coming decades, MFP intervened in numerous legal actions, many centering on seismic issues. “This is California, it’s very shaky,” said an MFP spokesperson. In 1974, the group sought to withhold Diablo’s licensing until the dangers could be investigated. The AEC rejected its request and asked for input from the U.S. Geological Survey.49

In 1975, the AEC was replaced by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Citing potential “sabotage and earthquake or other catastrophe,” MFP filed an unprecedented motion to stop PG&E from storing nuclear fuel at Diablo before the NRC granted its operating license. The NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied the motion. MFP lost an appeal the following year. It lost another battle, with Proposition 15, an unsuccessful California ballot measure designed to stop construction of nuclear plants in general until their safety could be determined. In 1976, MFP organized a “No More Hiroshima” event. By this point, according to historian John Wills, MFP had begun to view the politics of Diablo through the lens of patriarchy—the same patriarchy that used derogatory terms such as “frustrated housewives” to describe female activists, dubbed sexy women “blonde bombshells,” and masculinized nuclear bombs by giving them names like “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” Linking nuclear bombs with nuclear energy in the public mind, says Wills, proved one of the group’s strongest anti-Diablo arguments.50

As with other successful movements, MFP understood the power of media to draw attention to their campaign. They distributed flyers, sought out reporters, and put bumper stickers on their cars, one of which read: “Nuclear war ends everyone’s right to choose life.” They contacted editorial cartoonists and got responses. A 1981 cartoon by Pulitzer Prize–winner Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times depicted a woman with breasts on both the front and the back of her body, its caption reading: “By the Engineers Who Built Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.” Another cartoon invited police to a “full scale riot!!” “Another student?” it asked. “No, it’s Mothers for Peace.” Yet another featured an elderly woman carrying a purse and wearing a suit, blouse, and hat. “She may look like somebody’s granny to you,” the caption read, but she is an antinuclear activist.51

MFP remained at the forefront of antinuclear politics, but in the late 1970s they were joined by a new generation of activists, steeped in the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1974, PG&E began testing Diablo’s cooling system, releasing what one group called “excessive amounts of copper” into the ocean, killing thousands of abalone and other fish.52 In 1976, antinuclear activists on the East Coast had formed the Clamshell Alliance, named for the crustaceans that faced destruction from the Seabrook Nuclear plant then under construction in New Hampshire. In 1977, anti-Diablo activists on the West Coast created their own organization named the Abalone Alliance, a coalition of activist groups headquartered in San Francisco (Figure 5). Its initial actions included picketing PG&E headquarters and holding vigils at the gates separating PG&E’s property from the surrounding area.53

Figure 5.

Front page of the Abalone Alliance’s newspaper, June–July 1981. By the late 1970s, protests against the Diablo nuclear plant had exploded, fueled by revelations of PG&E’s failure to acknowledge design mistakes and its tendency to underplay safety issues.

Courtesy of Mark Evanoff Papers on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Figure 5.

Front page of the Abalone Alliance’s newspaper, June–July 1981. By the late 1970s, protests against the Diablo nuclear plant had exploded, fueled by revelations of PG&E’s failure to acknowledge design mistakes and its tendency to underplay safety issues.

Courtesy of Mark Evanoff Papers on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Close modal

The antinuclear movement gained national attention and significant traction in March 1979, when one of two reactors at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown that resulted in the temporary release of radioactive gas. No injuries or deaths were linked to the incident; nonetheless, it served as a reminder of potential disaster. So did the film The China Syndrome, released the same year. It pondered the horrifying possibility of a full reactor meltdown. The fictional plant, Ventana, was located outside of Los Angeles. At the time of the film’s release, California had two active power plants, neither operated by PG&E. San Onofre, north of San Diego, was jointly operated by Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. Rancho Seco, south of Sacramento, was operated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.54

The escalating protests brought many converts to the campaign, among them powerful politicians and celebrities, including Governor Jerry Brown, then in his early forties and serving the second of his four terms, and singers Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne. At a June 1979 Abalone Alliance rally that drew 40,000 people, Brown announced his opposition to Diablo and his intention to join MFP as an intervenor against the plant. Other converts included Pam Metcalf, who moved to San Luis Obispo in 1971. “I was vaguely aware that they were building this thing called Diablo Canyon,” she explained in an oral history. “My first sense of rage about it…had to do with watching the power lines up all across the freeway when I drove to work.” To learn more about Diablo, she attended an early Abalone Alliance meeting, and became “absolutely assured that there was nothing else to do with my life than to join these people and fight this thing.” She eventually became an Abalone spokesperson.55

In 1981, activists began planning a massive action at Diablo to coincide with the beginning of low-level testing for both reactors. They hoped to illustrate the plant’s vulnerability to outside attack, as well as to earthquakes. In May, the Abalone Alliance published a flyer, “A National Call to Action, the Madness at Diablo Must Stop,” which brought thousands more to the cause. “If nothing else, the message will go out across the U.S.,” said Metcalf. “It will be a message to people everywhere to stop plants before the first shovel is turned.”56

In preparation, activists took workshops in civil disobedience tactics, formed affinity groups—designed to provide moral support and comradeship—and crafted strategies for a planned blockade. Both men and women considered affinity groups a “feminine” organizational strategy, seeing leaderless groups as nonhierarchical. In early September activists began erecting a campsite on a large plot of land in a hilly area a dozen miles east of Diablo, donated by a local rancher. One participant described the campsite: “Hundreds of tents, all colors, all sizes. It’s like a medieval jousting tournament, but so orderly.”57 Abalone Alliance organizers decided to utilize three separate points of entry to the power plant: the entry gate west of Avila Beach; through the backcountry; and via the ocean (Figure 6). Vehicles dropped off some blockaders near Avila Beach, but many others hiked miles over rugged terrain. The so-called “Sea Brigade” came in boats donated by Greenpeace and other organizations. As they neared shore, the activists jumped overboard and clambered over rocks to reach land.58

Figure 6.

Protesters scaling the fence at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant, September 1981. When PG&E announced plans to begin low-level testing at Diablo, thousands of protesters descended on the plant from land and sea, and nearly two thousand were arrested.

Courtesy of Mark Evanoff Papers on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Figure 6.

Protesters scaling the fence at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant, September 1981. When PG&E announced plans to begin low-level testing at Diablo, thousands of protesters descended on the plant from land and sea, and nearly two thousand were arrested.

Courtesy of Mark Evanoff Papers on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Close modal

The blockaders were prepared to move as soon as the NRC announced it had granted PG&E its low-power test license. Protesters hoped to stop workers from accessing the plant, and to prevent PG&E from bringing in fuel for the reactors. But PG&E was prepared as well. The company had stockpiled fuel, water, and food. It also had called in law enforcement, which responded with more than four hundred officers from local police departments as well as sheriff’s deputies.59 A strong media presence was there, too, at both the campsite and the plant. Despite the long odds, Metcalf told reporters, she believed “there’s a chance we can stop that plant. We’re not exactly sure how that’s going to happen. The thing we all know is that the blockade will never work if we don’t try it.”60

On September 14, with the announcement that low-level testing was about to commence, blockaders embarked on their journey a few at a time, under cover of darkness. Each group was followed by others several minutes or hours later. A woman named Crystal described how her group traveled through the backcountry. “We walked on ranch roads…and used ancient Chumash Indian trails. Over half of us got terrible poison oak.” When the sun rose, they crouched “under the low chaparral every time a (police or media) helicopter stuttered by.” After a while, the group poured “from the canyon, slip[ping] through the barbed wire fence” onto PG&E property, then sliding “onto the road, holding our signs high.” There they ran into a wall of police, who quickly arrested protesters and put them in a waiting school bus. Blockader Jane Miller, however, made it inside. Her group had fashioned a “web” made of rope and yarn, entwined with flowers and peace charms. As they held it across the road, motorcycle police charged, believing that it would easily give way. Instead, police went down “in a tangle of women, flowers, yarn and rope. Fortunately, no one was injured.”61

Altogether, authorities arrested nearly two thousand blockaders. They were taken by bus to several sites, including the local community college gymnasium, the San Luis Obispo County Jail’s “honor farm,” and the gym of the medium-security California Men’s Colony prison. Miller described the experience as “scary” but afterward said that she “felt very much at peace with myself. I felt relieved that I had made the most powerful statement I could.”62

Blockader Judith Evered wrote later about the experience. She had a personal reason for participating in the blockade. The cancer death of her seven-year-old son propelled her toward antinuclear activism. Her family had lived near a nuclear power plant in England, and Evered believed that leaking radiation had caused her son’s fatal illness. She joined a contingent of about a hundred coming north from Santa Barbara and took part in the Avila Beach portion of the blockade. After climbing the fence onto PG&E property, she handed out antinuclear leaflets to workers, some of whom tacitly expressed support. As police swept in, some blockaders took off their clothes, hoping to slow down arrests. Some managed to flee temporarily, but eventually all were arrested. At first, according to Evered, police treated the prisoners gently and with respect. By the second day, however, they “were routinely roughing up blockaders,” hitting them, throwing them down embankments, and putting them in chokeholds. After herding them onto buses, authorities drove Evered and her colleagues—plus journalists covering the blockade—to the California Men’s Colony for processing. In jail, the women meditated, practiced tai chi, performed “goddess rituals,” and played volleyball. They sang “This Land Is Our Land” and held workshops. One possibly bored woman covered her nude body with uneaten white bread mixed with peanut butter. After nearly a week, Evered was released.63

The women’s tendency to use pseudonyms—Sojourner Truth and Karen Silkwood were popular choices—kept many incarcerated longer than if they had used their own names. Sojourner Truth, many knew, was a black abolitionist, feminist, and former slave. Silkwood was a union activist at an Oklahoma plant that manufactured plutonium who had complained about contamination. Bringing documents to a New York Times reporter in 1974, she died when her car ran off the road. The documents disappeared, leading many to suspect that she had been murdered.64

Virtually all of the protesters were white. During their incarceration, many women began pondering the lack of diversity in the antinuclear coalition. The irony of white women using the pseudonym “Sojourner Truth” was a catalyst for the discussion. Evered, released after six days, later observed that “white people created this nuclear mess,” but poor people and people of color “suffered disproportionately from chemicals and or radiation pollution.” White activists needed to go “proactively into communities and invite broad participation in the anti-nuclear movement.” In fact, by the late 1970s, people of color were already in the process of creating an environmental justice movement focused on what participants called “eco-racism.”65

After two weeks, the blockade ended. Blockader Susan Birchler described her own, somewhat anticlimactic release: “Guards loaded us on yet another bus, drove us to the ‘real’ San Luis Obispo jail and dumped us on the front lawn, leaving without a backward glance. We stood around, waiting for a ride back to camp, and watched the sun go down.”66

The Abalone Alliance remained active until the mid-1980s, participating in a combined 1984 action at the plant and at PG&E headquarters in San Luis Obispo. Mothers for Peace, meanwhile, remained on the front lines of the antinuclear campaign. After PG&E admitted it had used the wrong blueprints for one reactor, MFP succeeded in convincing the NRC to temporarily suspend Diablo’s low-power license. Two years later, in 1983, PG&E resumed low-level testing. MFP spokeswoman Nancy Culver said, “Our hope is that the problems surface when the situation is fairly benign, rather than when the plant is at full power, or an earthquake occurs.” By this point, 56 percent of residents in San Luis Obispo County expressed reservations about the safety of Diablo.67

At a congressional hearing in January 1984, Culver and fellow MFP member Sandy Silver testified about the NRC’s “dismal record” regarding oversight of Diablo. They criticized the commission’s “unabashed disregard” for quality assurance “through the 15-year history of the plant.” In 1980, for example, MFP had urged the NRC to delay authorizing PG&E to load uranium fuel into a reactor until a hearing on safety could be held. The commission refused. In September 1981, the NRC had granted PG&E a low-level power license and, one week later, the public learned that PG&E had used the wrong blueprints to build one of its two reactors. Hundreds of additional errors were discovered soon thereafter. “The NRC has worked harder at avoiding the issue of quality assurance than addressing it,” the women declared, “not because it is confident that Diablo Canyon’s design and construction are adequate, but because they are not.” “The Commission,” they concluded, “has simply abdicated its statutory duty to protect the health and safety of the public.”68

When Diablo Unit 1 went online in 1985, MFP declared that the NRC had “not only compounded their legal error, but they have compounded the danger that we in the community have to live under.” Several months later, PG&E brought Unit 2 online. With nuclear plant licenses lasting forty years, this meant that Diablo would operate until 2025. Once again, MFP protested. “We feel that Unit 2 was licensed illegally, said Sandy Silva, just as Unit 1” had been.69

Despite the seemingly long odds against success, MFP continued to take legal action. In 2004, it joined the Sierra Club in suing the George W. Bush administration for failing to address nuclear security risks in the aftermath of 9/11. Four years later, MFP argued that PG&E had not adequately investigated whether aboveground casks storing radioactive fuel could withstand terrorist attacks. In 2009, when MFP sought tougher environmental oversight of stored fuel, a reporter dismissed the women as “aging hippies, activists, and teachers.”70

A major turning point in MFP’s antinuclear effort came in 2011. That March, a 9.0 earthquake near Fukushima, Japan, released radioactive material from a nearby nuclear power plant and created a tsunami with forty-five-foot waves. Suddenly, past dire warnings about earthquakes and radioactive disaster seemed less farfetched. PG&E’s many public assurances of safety rang hollow. Yet many were stunned when, in 2016, the company announced that it would not seek another forty-year license; instead, it announced plans to shut down Diablo when the original licenses expired. Officials cited the changing politics of electricity in California, due to such programs as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), an approach—the result of statewide legislation passed in 2002—that enables local government officials to contract with nonprofit public agencies to purchase electricity from a variety of providers, with the goal of shifting away from fossil fuels and toward alternative sources of energy. Under this program, investor-owned utilities, including PG&E, still maintain the transmission infrastructure, but local governments decide which energy sources to fund. Ten million Californians now live in cities that use this approach, which has also been adopted by other states. Residents of cities utilizing CCAs are automatically enrolled in the program but can choose to opt out due to costs, which often are slightly higher. But PG&E representatives also tacitly acknowledged that decades of protests and legal actions had taken a toll. By the 2010s, Diablo was California’s only operating power plant. Rancho Seco shut down in the 1980s, and San Onofre in 2013. Rancho Seco, like Diablo, had experienced strong and continuous community opposition.71

Diablo’s supporters, however, are fighting the closure, arguing that losing the plant might result not only in higher energy prices, but also in spotty or unavailable service during adverse weather conditions. Many argue that fears about nuclear energy are overblown. In December 2021, for example, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm suggested that California might want to preserve Diablo to help in the state’s zero-carbon-emissions plan, an idea that Linda Seely of MFP likened to a “freight train coming toward us. They’re not looking at the issue of having a 40-year-old nuclear power plant on 13 faults.”72

At this writing, Diablo’s eventual closure seems likely, although the plant received a reprieve of sorts in August 2022 when, to give California time to develop other energy sources, lawmakers passed legislation to keep it operating until 2030. Back in the 1950s, as government, business, scientists, and advertisers joined forces to sell nuclear power to the American public, few anticipated the bitter debates and conflicts that would result. It seems particularly ironic that women, as a primary target of their advertising, should ultimately have stood at the forefront of the battle against nuclear power for nearly five decades. Women forced PG&E to disclose problems that might otherwise have remained secret, and to adopt safety measures that it otherwise might have ignored or dismissed. Likewise, MFP kept public attention riveted on Diablo. Back in the 1980s, an NRC official nodded to their success. As the “flow of allegations became a deluge,” MFP activists compelled the NRC to establish a special Diablo Canyon Allegation Management System. By 1984, it took more than forty NRC staffers working 18,000 hours to address challenges that resulted in more than four hundred hearings.73

What became of Kathleen Goddard Jackson Jones, the woman who started it all by convincing PG&E to move its plant to Diablo Canyon? She spent decades working with state, federal, and local agencies to turn the Nipomo Dunes into a park. By the 1990s, she had largely succeeded. Visitors to the dunes today can spend time in a wildlife refuge, hike along miles of trails, camp, and stop in at a visitors’ center that documents the region’s history (Figure 6). But she could not save it all: fifteen hundred acres was set aside for off-road vehicles. By then, her reputation as a “troublemaker” was far in the past. The Sierra Club features her in several oral histories. “Kathy is the type of volunteer every Sierra Club chapter should have,” one noted, “resolute, knowledgeable and relentless.” “Her battle on behalf of the Nipomo Dunes represents the finest qualities of courage and commitment.”74 In the 1990s, the California Coastal Conservancy publicly recognized Jackson, calling her dunes preservation work “an example of how environmentalists and their historical enemies can work together.”75 The Diablo Canyon Power Plant may well be shuttered within a decade of this writing, but California will still have the Nipomo Dunes, the largest intact coastal dune ecosystem on Earth.76


The Nipomo Dunes are part of a larger entity, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, which spans two counties: Santa Barbara on the south and San Luis Obispo on the north. They are also referred to as the Oceano Dunes, a part of the larger Nipomo Dunes, known for off-road-vehicle riding.


Sarah Linn, “The Dunites, Building a Utopia in the Oceano Dunes,” Art Bound, KCET, July 7, 2013; Jennifer Sharp, “Take Two,” KPCC, March 10, 2014.


Thomas Wellock, Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958–78 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 2, 112; John Wills, Conservation Fallout: Nuclear Protest at Diablo (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2006), 38. California’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960, from nearly 7 million to 15.8 million, due in part to growth of the World War II defense industry. During the war, California received $35 billion in federal spending, one-tenth of the national defense budget.


Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 19–21. Called “Jackson” here for convenience, Kathleen Goddard Jackson Jones was born Kathleen Goddard in 1907. She married and later divorced Ali Shirazi Parvaz; married and later divorced Duncan Jackson; and, at age sixty-four, married seventy-one-year-old Gaylord Jefferson Jones.;; Biographical Note, Online Archive of California, Kathleen Goddard Jones Papers, Special Collections Department, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California,


Susan R. Schrepfer, “The Nuclear Crucible: Diablo Canyon and the Transformation of the Sierra Club, 1965–1985,” California History 71, no. 2 (1992), 221.


Wellock, Critical Masses, 115. PG&E may have been the largest provider of electricity in California, but it was not the only one. Southern California Edison and Sacramento Municipal Utility District were other significant providers. Both also built nuclear power plants: south of San Clemente, SCE operated San Onofre; south of Sacramento, SMUD operated Rancho Seco. At this writing, both are shuttered.


Charles Hillinger, “Belle’s Battle: Mother of Ecology Thrives on Fight with Giant Utility,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1971, A3.


“David R. Brower: Environmental Activist, Publicist, and Prophet, oral history transcript/and related material,” interview conducted by Susan R. Schrepfer, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Sierra Club History Series, 1974–1978, 179.


Ibid., 195–197.


“Richard M. Leonard: Mountaineer, Lawyer, Environmentalist,” interview by Susan R. Schrepfer, September 25, 1975, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Oral History Transcript/1972–1975, 284.


“Save the San Francisco Bay” was led by Catherine Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick. Information on the campaign is in Sylvia McLaughlin, “Citizen Activist for the Environment: Saving San Francisco Bay, Promoting Shoreline Parks and Natural Values in Urban and Campus Planning,” interview by Ann Lage, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Save the Santa Monica Mountains was led by Margot Feuer, Susan Nelson, and Jill Swift. Information is in Susan B. Nelson Papers, Special Collections and Archives, California State University Northridge, and in Leonard Pitt, A Touch of Wilderness: Oral Histories on the Formation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (Los Angeles: National Park Service, April 2015).


Kathleen Goddard Jones correspondence, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, MS 173, folders 3–7.


At that time, San Luis Obispo was deemed too small to have its own Sierra Club chapter. It remained part of the Santa Barbara chapter until the 1960s.


Kathleen Goddard Jones papers, San Luis Obispo County Environmental Archives, California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, MS 119, box 3, folder 1.


Virginia Cornell, Defender of the Dunes: The Kathleen Goddard Jones Story (Carpinteria, CA: Manifest, 2001), 10.


Ibid., 26. Her introduction to the dunes came on her daughter Carol’s birthday, when she drove a carload of teenagers to the site, left them sitting on the beach, and began to hike. The New Year’s Day dune hikes continue, as do yearly July hikes commemorating Jackson’s birthday.


Ibid., 27–43.




“Kathleen Goddard Jones: Defender of California’s Nipomo Dunes, Steadfast Sierra Club Volunteer,” interview by Anne Van Tyne, Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley, 1984, Sierra Club Nationwide II, 21–23.


Cornell, Defender of the Dunes, 53–62.


“Kathleen Goddard Jones: Defender,” 24.


Wellock, Critical Masses, 77–78.


The quote about PG&E’s clout is from Tom Redburn, “Diablo Nuclear Plant: How PG&E ‘Shot Itself in the Foot,’” Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1982, B1.


“David R. Brower,” 202.


Schrepfer, “Nuclear Crucible,” 217, discusses the growing split over nuclear power; Telegram-Tribune (San Luis Obispo County), “They Walked, and Walked, and Walked…Then Talked,” January 16, 1965, B1.


Cornell, Defender of the Dunes, 69; Kathleen A. Cairns, At Home in the World: California Women and the Postwar Environmental Movement (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 88–91.


Wellock, Critical Masses, 76–78.


Cornell, Defender of the Dunes, 62–63. Information about Conservation Associates and the Varians is in Glenna Matthews, Silicon Valley, Women and the California Dream: Gender, Class and Opportunity in the Twentieth Century (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 127–130. Richard Leonard also discussed the organization in Schrepfer’s interview, “Richard M. Leonard: Mountaineer, Lawyer, Environmentalist,” 282.


Schrepfer, “Nuclear Crucible,” 213.


Cairns, At Home in the World, 92; Schrepfer, “Nuclear Crucible,” 217.


Schrepfer, “Nuclear Crucible,” 222.


“Kathleen Goddard Jones: Defender,” 24.


Wellock, Critical Masses, 83.


“David R. Brower,” 220–221.


Sierra Club Oral Histories, “Sierra Club Women I, II, and III,” 1976–77, 1983, Regional Oral Histories, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 28–30; Cornell, Defender of the Dunes, 128.


Cornell, Defender of the Dunes, 128.


Schrepfer, “Nuclear Crucible,” 229–230; “David R. Brower,” 203–204.


Gladwin Hill, “Sierra Club Sending Out Ballots for a Vote Vital to Its Future,” New York Times, March 14, 1969, 20.


Adams had influence and a wide circle of friends and colleagues outside of the Sierra Club. He was part of a professional and social group that included photographer Dorothea Lange. Cairns, At Home in the World, 94.


“Appeals Filed against Coastal Atomic Facility,” Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1967, B8.


“David R. Brower,” 204.


Schrepfer, “Nuclear Crucible,” 230; “David R. Brower,” 205–211.


Cairns, At Home in the World, 60, 122.


Ibid., 97.


Claude Walbert, “San Luis Obispo’s Antinuclear Activists: Mothers for Peace Fight $1.4 Billion Power Plant,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1979, H1.


George Alexander, “Court Holds Up Full-Power Test at Diablo Plant,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1984, A1.


Walbert, “San Luis Obispo’s Antinuclear Activists.”


Wills, Conservation Fallout, 77.


Diablo Writing Project, “Diablo Blockade: An Illustrated Anthology of Articles, Essays, Poems & Personal Experiences” (Santa Cruz, CA: Diablo Writing Project, 1983), 8. The booklet was written and illustrated by dozens of women and men who participated in the two-week September 1981 blockade of Diablo. The passage “the largest financial loss involved and severe impact such a denial would have on the nuclear industry” appears in a report of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-fifth Congress, June 30, 1977, 77.


Wills, Conservation Fallout, 82. The phrase “an unprecedented motion” appears in Diablo Writing Project, “Diablo Blockade,” 8.


Mothers for Peace Collection, MS0195, California Polytechnic University Special Collections, Kennedy Library, San Luis Obispo, undated.


Diablo Writing Project, “Diablo Blockade,” 27.


Ibid., 8.


The China Syndrome, directed by James Bridges (Columbia Pictures, 1979). The film starred Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas as, respectively, the manager of a power plant, a television reporter, and a cameraman. The trio discover potentially disastrous problems during a visit to the plant, and the plot centers on the effort to downplay the dangers and to stop the journalists from airing the story. Both the San Onofre and Rancho Seco nuclear power plants have been shut down, the former in 1984 and the latter in 1989.


John Wills, “Talking Atoms: Anti-nuclear Protest at Diablo Canyon, California, 1977–1984,” Oral History Society 28, no. 2 (Autumn 2000): 44–53.


John Hurst and Bob Secter, “A-Plant Prepared for Siege: Script for Diablo Canyon Promises Exciting Drama,” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1981, B1.


Diablo Writing Project, “Diablo Blockade,” 44.


Wills, “Talking Atoms,” 49.


Judith Evered, Protest Diablo: Living and Dying under the Shadow of a Nuclear Power Plant (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2010), 65–90.


Larry B. Stammer, “NRC Gives Full-Power License to Diablo Unit,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1985, 3.


Diablo Writing Project, “Diablo Blockade,” 62.


Ibid., 70.


Evered, Protest Diablo, 118–126.


Books about Silkwood include Howard Kohn, Who Killed Karen Silkwood? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981); see also the film Silkwood, directed by Mike Nichols (20th Century Fox, 1983).


Evered, Protest Diablo, 126. Works on environmental justice include Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (New York: Routledge, 2018); Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the Environmental Movement (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993); Martin Melosi, “Environmental Justice, Political Agenda Setting and Myths of History,” Journal of Policy History 12, no. 1 (2000); Rachel Stein (ed.), New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality and Activism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004); Mary Pardo, “Mexican American Women Grassroots Community Activists: ‘Mothers of East Los Angeles,’” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 11, no. 1 (1990); Dorceta E. Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (New York: NYU Press, 2014).


Diablo Writing Project, “Diablo Blockade,” 85.


Thomas C. Hayes, “Diablo Canyon Reactor Starts Up amid Protest and Industry Praise,” New York Times, April 30, 1984, A1.


Hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Committee on Energy and the Environment, January 24, 1984; Mothers for Peace Collection, box 46, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA. The collection is not yet processed, thus there are no folder numbers.


Stammer, “NRC Gives Full-Power License to Diablo Unit.” Construction took a decade longer than PG&E’s timeline for completion, and the cost was many times more than the original estimate of $300 million—ultimately it cost $5.4 billion.


Anonymous (Brattleboro, Vermont), Brattleboro Reformer, January 22, 2009.


Sammy Roth, “Here’s How Local Governments Are Replacing California’s Biggest Utilities,” Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2019. California Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D–San Francisco) carried Assembly Bill 117 (2002), which created an implementation plan for CCAs. It required the California Public Utilities Commission, by July 15, 2003, to establish policies and procedures for applying to administer “cost effective energy efficiency and conservation programs.”


Dale Kasler, “California’s Last Nuclear Power Plant Should Stay Open, Energy Secretary Says,” San Luis Obispo Tribune, December 5, 2021, 1.


San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Scenic Shoreline Preservation Conference, Ecology Action Club, Sandra Silver, Elizabeth Apfelberg, John J. Forster, petitioners vs. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia Circuit, April 13, 1984, 8, Mothers for Peace Collection, box 31, California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, California.


John Ashbaugh, “Kathleen Goddard Jones,” Sierra Club Oral Histories, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, “Sierra Clubwomen, I, II, and III.”


Connie Koenenn, “Paradise Preserved: Strange Bedfellows Have United to Protect Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1992, E1.