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Japan's nuclear disaster is fading from the top of the evening news. But we all know that the crisis is far from over.

When first I suggested writing one more time about the proposed nuclear plant on Bodega Head in the 1960s, an editor wasn't sure it was a good idea. "It was a long time ago," he said.

That's true. But, as we read about which way the wind is carrying the radiation and about the contaminated seawater and the concerns about the fish — well, it seems like only yesterday.

IN THE 50 YEARS since the issue of whether a nuclear power plant should be built on those wind-swept headlands was debated, we've written often about the protests the proposal engendered.

Some of what we've written has been about the foresight and creativity of the protesters. They were the trendsetters. Theirs was the first victory of its kind in Sonoma County and, arguably, on the California coast.

The Battle of Bodega Head, as it came to be known, was a harbinger of the environmental movement and a kind of prototype for coastal actions to come.

We have concentrated to some extent on the "antics" — trumpeter Lu Watters' "Blues Over Bodega," which hit the top of the Bay Area charts; the signs saying "Welcome to the Atomic Park," the knife-sharp satirical verses of marine biologist Joel Hedgpeth.

We have made it sound like it was great fun. The Fukushima situation paints it in more somber tones.

DORIS SLOAN, a professor of geology at UC Berkeley, is the latest to tackle the sequence of events in the 1950s and '60s that focused attention on the Sonoma Coast and what happened there. Or, more accurately, what DIDN'T happen there.

Sloan, who lived in the west county from 1956 to '63 when she was a young mother of three, before she earned her Ph.D. and founded the environmental studies program at Berkeley, was very much involved in the issue.

It was a time when the words "environmentalist" and "ecology" were not in the lexicon; when people like Sloan didn't even call themselves activists.

"We didn't know what to call ourselves," she told an interviewer in a film called "Ecology Emerges" made for a Bay Area organization called Shaping San Francisco.

"We didn't have a vocabulary. We just saw ourselves as a small group of concerned people. We didn't call ourselves environmentalists. It was before the word."

Now a professor emeritus, Doris is working as an adjunct faculty member at Berkeley, guiding graduate students through a complex research project which will, in time, yield a comprehensive report (a book, I hope) about the people, the politics, the events and the science that make up the Bodega Head story.

THE TALE BEGINS in 1957 on the ocean side of the headlands, on the Gaffney Ranch, when PG&E tagged Horseshoe Cove as a site for a power plant.

The road that ran around the east side of the head went only as far as a settlement known as Keesport for the Kee family ranch there. The road beyond, to the Gaffney and Stroh ranches, was low-tide only — and private.

Rose Gaffney, a formidable widow who knew that she had something of great value, protected her cove fiercely.

She had been negotiating, at intervals, with the State Division of Parks, which had the headlands on its wish list; and with UC Berkeley, which wanted Horseshoe Cove for a marine biology campus.

Gaffney, who was known to spend weekends during abalone season standing guard over her private road to keep mollusk-hunters out (some said she often waved a shotgun), was shrewdly noncommittal about which of these two offers she favored.

It was a measure of the kind of power that the utility wielded in those days that, when Pacific Gas & Electric expressed interest in Horseshoe Cove both State Parks and UC Berkeley dropped all plans — "rolled over and played dead," some said.

The plant was to be a "steam-electric generating plant." The only public opposition was about the delivery system — high-tension lines on towers marching along the popular beach at Doran Park.

County officials, unfamiliar with citizen involvement, (They were "surprised and displeased" at citizen comment, Sloan recalled), ruled that the use permit for the line did not require a public hearing.

Gaffney, writing her lengthy letters to the editor and to supervisors, was the first to cry danger when the utility dropped eminent domain proceedings for Horseshoe Cove and set its sights on Campbell Cove on the harbor side of the head. The reason: The Atomic Energy Commission had a directive against nuclear plants on earthquake faults and Horseshoe Cove, PG&E reported, was on the San Andreas fault.

So the utility was moving 1,000 feet east, across the head. And the word was out that the plant "might" be nuclear rather than steam.

As geologist Sloan points out in her film interview, we didn't know anywhere near as much about earthquake faults in those days as we do now.

"We didn't comprehend how tectonics came together in the mid-'60s. Ten years later there would not even have been a proposal to put a plant there," she said.

But county officials were quick to dismiss Gaffney and others who raised questions, calling them "nervous Nellies," and explaining that fear of nuclear energy was nothing more than a lack of knowledge.

Then Karl Kortum got involved, moved by the very idea that these beautiful headlands might be, in his words, "industrialized."

Kortum, director of San Francisco's Maritime Museum, had grown up on a Petaluma dairy and had roamed the northern coast all his life. He became Gaffney's first ally. And he brought Chronicle writer Harold Gilliam to tell the entire Bay Area the bad news.

Someone else had been watching — a young forestry student named David Pesonen. He was ready when, in 1961, PG&E announced in an industry trade magazine, that its Bodega plant would be "the world's first power reactor to break the economic barrier ... the biggest boiling water reactor yet scheduled."

The notion of boiling ocean water raised the intellectual ire of Hedgpeth, director of the College of the Pacific's marine lab at Dillon Beach. Described by his Sebastopol neighbor, Sloan, as "extremely feisty," he joined Pesonen and Jean and Karl Kortum and a small group of local residents, including Sloan and another "feisty" one, Bodega Bay's Hazel Mitchell.

They formed the Northern California Association to Preserve Bodega Head and Harbor. And the "antics" began.

The most telling one involved balloons with a note inside including a return address and the information that if it had been a molecule of strontium 90 or iodine 131 rather than a balloon, it would have drifted in the same path.

The cards came back from the East Bay and the agricultural lands across western Marin County.

Meanwhile, PG&E continued work on the reactor excavation, 142 feet across, that we called, and still call, the Hole in the Head.

Pesonen was working full time on the protest, traveling the state, talking his way into radio stations.

That's how Pierre Saint-Amand, a geophysicist at the China Lake naval base, heard about Bodega Bay. He called Pesonen and came to take a look, becoming the first to identify (dare I say "notice"?) the fault in the Hole in the Head.

A pioneer in the study of tectonic plates and how they move, he alerted the Atomic Energy Commission. Two days later, after the AEC saw the fault, PG&E withdrew.

DORIS SLOAN: "The terrible scenario at the Fukushima reactors shows how unwise it is to site nuclear reactors at the coast.

"Clearly the decision not to build the Bodega plant was the correct one. Though the proposed plant, with a projected life of 30 years, might have been closed by now, spent fuel likely would have remained there, in danger from earthquake or tsunami, because California still doesn't have a long-term repository for nuclear waste."

And, from David Pesonen, who became an environmental lawyer and served as director of the California Division of Forestry in the '80s and now lives in Sixes, Ore., where he works as an labor arbitrator:

"In 1961, the president of PG&E's board of directors proudly announced plans for 10 nuclear power plants strung along the Northern California coast: &‘We have now set our course,' he said.

"That craft ran aground at Bodega Head in 1964, thanks to the heroic efforts of many Sonoma County people, and it never again embarked. There are now no nuclear plants between San Luis Obispo and the Columbia River in Washington state, thanks to their efforts. When we have our next big 1906-size earthquake, we may have to pick up the broken crockery, but not our very lives."

Both State Parks and UC got their wishes. The UC Davis marine lab is at Horseshoe Cove and State Parks bought the headlands from PG&E for $1.

Today the reminders of a power plant on Bodega Head are a paved road to the headlands, public visits on designated days to the lab at Horseshoe Cove and a viewing area where we can look down into the Hole in the Head, filled with fresh, clean, uncontaminated water.

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