David Pesonen

Atomic Park Smackdown

Recorded: December 23, 2013

A story about how a small handful of people defeated a nuclear reactor project at Bodega Head (1958-1964). This project was forced on citizens of California's North Coast by the state's largest utility, its largest university, and one of the largest and most powerful government agencies in existence at the time. Hear David Pesonen's story about how he learned about the corruption and danger that was lurking behind this sinister project at Bodega Head and how a small group of active citizens put it to rest forever. At the Bodega Head north of San Francisco, California, one can observe the actual "Hole in the Head" where PG&E had excavated the footings for the nuclear plant right alongside the San Andreas Fault.

David Pesonen is an environmental activist, lawyer, and was a former judge in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1968, after graduating from Boalt Law School at the University of California, he began work at a San Francisco law firm and became involved in the anti-nuclear movement. He was elected chairman of Californians for Nuclear Safeguards, and was one of the authors of Proposition 15—an unsuccessful 1976 ballot initiative to restrict nuclear power production in California. He was also involved in the successful opposition to proposed nuclear power plants near Bodega Bay, in Sonoma County, and Point Arena, in Mendocino County.

In 1979, California Governor Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown, Jr. appointed Pesonen to the office of Director of Forestry. In the final days of Governor Brown’s term in office, he appointed Pesonen to the Superior Court in Contra Costa County. He ran unsuccessfully for reelection to the post in 1984. In 1985-88 he was General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District in Alameda/Contra Costa Counties, California.

David Pesonen:    Believe in yourself.  You know, believe you can do what you can do.

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David Pesonen:    Dave Brower hired me, and one day he waked into my little office–I didn’t really have an office, I just had a desk– and he handed me two clippings from the San Francisco Chronicle.  The [letters to the editor] lamented the fact that Bodega Bay, which is a very scenic place on the coast about 50 miles north of San Francisco, was going to be destroyed by an industrial development for a nuclear power plant.  I didn’t realize this at the time, but that plant was viewed, all the way down from Glenn Seaborg, as the director of the Atomic Energy Commission, down to PG&E as the first nuclear power plant that would prove that nuclear power could be economical and competitive with fossil fuels.  And it was a done deal as far as those letters said.  He handed me these and said, “Go look into this. See what’s going on here.”  And the letters precipitated rehearing before the State Public Utilities Commission.

David Pesonen:    Getting ready to go to the Public Utilities Commission, I went over to the Public Utilities Commnission, I went over to the PG&E office, and I just naively, innocently, I pushed the elevator button up to the engineering floor. It was lunchtime.  And I went up – there was a secretary there and I went over to her and I said, “You know, I’m interested in– if you have a file on this Bodega plant.”  And she handed me this manila folder.  And I went down and I sat down at a desk and I opened this up and I started to read it, and it was full of the most incriminating material, of letters of how they had practically bribed the San – the Sonoma Board of Supervisors to give them the building permits. It was just full of all kinds of wonderful stuff.  Wonderful stuff if you’re an environmental activist.  So I made a bunch of notes and I gave her back the file. And then I went to the Public Utilities Commission hearings. And those hearings, they were a done deal for PG&E, I mean, they were just window dressing.  But at the last minute, Phil Berry who had just graduated from Stanford Law School– just passed the bar and who was very active in the Sierra Club at the time–he made a motion for PG&E to produce their files on the geology of the site.

David Pesonen:    Hal Gilliam by that time was working for the Secretary of Interior, he was with [Stewart] Udall and he got Udall to send the USGS–to send two geologists out there. And they issued a report and it was devastating.  And we had our own geologists do it and issued another devastating report.  And finally the Atomic Energy Commission staff said, this is too much.  This is not –  the thing was sitting right on the San Andreas Fault.   You take an aerial photo, it was just like an arrow right through that site down into Tomales Bay.  We took that file and compared it to the file they made–that they gave to the Atomic Energy Commission for a federal permit and there were lots of contradictions.  I mean this was really a scandal and I didn’t really realize it at the time, but about half of the university’s [U.C.] budget came from the Atomic Energy Commission.  State agencies and the university just collapsed in front before PG&E, and so there was no organized opposition.  The largest utility, the largest university, one of the largest federal agencies, all of the state agencies, they were all against us and it was just this handful of sort of happenstance people, but it grew and it grew and it started to get accredibility.  And it grew because we were persistent and because we were right.  There comes a point where it’s just too risky.  And so PG&E immediately announced that they had always said that if there was any threat to public safety, they would not build it and so they pulled out.  It went on for 3 years–almost 3 years.  And we finally won.

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