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30 years ago, voters forced shutdown of Rancho Seco nuclear plant in Sacramento County

Sacramento stories: Rancho Seco nuclear plant protest (March 1979)

This is one in a series of videos looking back at big stories in Sacramento-area history. This one took place on March 31, 1979, when 13 nuclear protesters scaled the main gate to SMUD’s Rancho Seco plant and were arrested.
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This is one in a series of videos looking back at big stories in Sacramento-area history. This one took place on March 31, 1979, when 13 nuclear protesters scaled the main gate to SMUD’s Rancho Seco plant and were arrested.

June 6 is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, but in Sacramento, the date has another important meaning.

Thursday is the 30th anniversary of the vote that permanently closed down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in southern Sacramento County. With the defeat of Measure K, Sacramento became the first community in the world to close a nuclear plant by public vote.

Phil Angelides, the former state treasurer, was a local businessman in Sacramento at the time, and he was involved in the movement to close Rancho Seco.

“The plant was an enormous liability for Sacramento,” Angelides said. “It was first generation plant technology, it just didn’t function.”

Angelides said Rancho Seco was preventing Sacramento from developing a diversified, forward-looking energy portfolio capable of sustaining the region’s growth because of how costly and inefficient the plant was.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District opened the Rancho Seco power plant, about a 30-minute drive from downtown Sacramento, for commercial operation in 1974, but for years it was plagued by a series of outages.

In 1985, operators lost control of the plant during an “overcooling” event, which forced an automatic shutdown. The resulting 27-month outage cost SMUD $400 million, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

SMUD also paid $745,000 in federal fines for various violations related to the facility through 1989, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Outcry against Rancho Seco unfolded when the safety of nuclear energy was in question. In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa. suffered a partial meltdown, and in 1986, the accident at Chernobyl became the worst nuclear disaster in human history.

Chernobyl is getting renewed attention this year with the release of an HBO series dramatizing the disaster, which this week became the top show on IMDb’s all-time TV rankings just days after the series concluded.

In light of these major disasters, accidents at the Rancho Seco plant became increasingly intolerable for many SMUD customers. Protestors voiced concerns even before the plant opened, and over the years, citizen resistance grew.

Just days after the Three Mile Island disaster, people climbed over the fence at Rancho Seco during a protest demonstration.

More than 100 other demonstrators cheered with cries of “shut down now, no meltdown later” as 13 protestors climbed the main gate of the plant. The 13 people were arrested for trespassing, and some demonstrators vowed to go on a hunger strike until the 13 were released from jail.

Martha Ann Blackman, 75, was so alarmed when she discovered that Three Mile Island and Rancho Seco used the same design that she wrote and read a poem at the SMUD board meeting that followed the incident.

“We wonder where it goes, we wonder where it blows, do not know,” the poem, called “RADIATION,” reads.

Blackman eventually became involved with Sacramentans for Safe Energy, a grassroots organization that led the fight at the community level to shut down Rancho Seco. Blackman served on the board and worked as a spokeswoman for the group.

“The community and grass-roots effort was pretty astounding,” Blackman said.

Some say that it wasn’t a fear of nuclear power that led residents to rebel against SMUD, but frustration with the plant’s inefficiency, which caused rates to rise by 25 percent each year for the four years prior to the vote. Over its 14 years of operation, Rancho Seco operated only a third of the time, according to people involved in the anti-Seco movement.

Bob Mulholland ran Campaign California’s fight against Rancho Seco. Campaign California worked closely with SAFE, Mulholland said, but his argument to voters was focused primarily on the economic waste the plant was causing.

Mulholland remembered polling Sacramentans and discovering that people mostly didn’t want to make a decision about nuclear power. “They felt it was above their pay grade,” Mulholland said.

But the bad economics of the situation caught people’s attention, according to Mulholland.

“We ran the campaign on performance,” Mulholland said. “Don’t keep spending money on something that’s breaking down.”

Mulholland recalled a TV advertisement Campaign California ran before the vote that showed a baseball team striking out. Each time a batter swung for a strike, a message about the problems at the plant appeared on the screen. When the last batter struck out, the advertisement said “Vote ‘no’ on Measure K,” Mulholland said.

The situation reached its breaking point in 1988 when a citizens’ initiative called Measure B that would force Rancho Seco to close was narrowly defeated. SMUD asked for another year to try to get the plant up to par, and voters agreed.

But when Measure K again asked voters in 1989 whether to keep Rancho Seco open, customers were fed up.

On June 6, 1989, Measure K was defeated by a margin of more than 13,000 votes, and the plant began the process of shutting down the next day. Measure K did more than just shut down the plant, too. It led SMUD to rethink how it did business.

After the plant shut down, SMUD diversified its energy supply and increased investment in energy efficiency programs that have resulted in customer savings of more than $600 million, SMUD officials said.

While the plant was still running, SMUD built one of the first utility-scale solar plants at Rancho Seco, which was decommissioned and replaced in 2016. The solar array powers downtown buildings like the state Capitol and the Golden 1 Center.

SMUD is now constructing the Rancho Seco Solar 2 project, a second array of solar panels that will be the largest facility in the county when it comes online. Construction is scheduled to start in August.

SMUD converted the land near the decommissioned nuclear power plant into the Rancho Seco Recreational Area. In 2006, it added the Rancho Seco Howard Ranch Trail to the park.

Still, the shutdown process for the plant was long and arduous. It took 20 years for the plant to be fully decommissioned by the federal government, costing ratepayers $500 million, The Bee reported.

Disposal of the radioactive waste at the plant hasn’t yet been settled, either. SMUD spends $5 million per year to provide security and oversee proper storage of spent uranium.

The materials have been in dry storage at Rancho Seco since decommission and will remain there until the federal government can come up with a solution, according to SMUD.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, on Thursday introduced a bill that would initiate a program for both decommissioned plants like Rancho Seco and active plants to store spent nuclear fuel in a consolidated program at the Department of Energy.

Removing nuclear waste from Rancho Seco has been a key priority in Congress for Matsui. A hearing for the bill was held June 13, less than a week after it was introduced. Matsui also secured $25 million for the project through an appropriations bill that is expected to pass the House floor before the end of the month.

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