An Indigenous future for nuclear power in California?

By Jon Christensen, Matthew Crotty | May 1, 2024

The central coast of California, with the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in the background.The central coast of California, with the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in the background.

Could the future of nuclear power in California be indigenous? The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini—also known as the YTT Northern Chumash Tribe—think so.

California’s last operating nuclear power plant sits on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean at Diablo Canyon, surrounded by 12,000 acres of wild land on the central California coast. It is YTT traditional territory, home to former villages, burial grounds, and sacred sites.

The YTT want it back. And they are not only willing to co-exist with Diablo Canyon; they see the operating plant as an “asset” that has protected their homeland long enough for them to organize and gather strength to take it back.

Whether this will save Diablo Canyon from planned decommissioning, let alone contribute to any broader revival of nuclear power in California, remains to be seen. Neither of those decisions are in the hands of the YTT. But their perspective makes an intriguing contribution to a changing conversation about atomic energy in the Golden State.

Their views certainly surprised us as we worked on a documentary about the history and future of Diablo Canyon for PBS SoCal’s “Earth Focus” series. (The half-hour documentary on Diablo Canyon can be streamed here, and a supplemental documentary short about the YTT can be streamed here.) We went into our research and reporting thinking that this was going to be a story as much about cultural change as it would be about changing views of science, technology, and risk. And we knew there were two sides to the story.

One was the deeply engrained “no nukes” culture of California, which peaked in massive civil disobedience demonstrations against the opening of Diablo Canyon in the mid-1980s and has led to shutting down all the other nuclear power plants in the state and a plan—agreed to in 2016 by the utility that owns the plant, Pacific Gas & Electric—to decommission Diablo Canyon. That movement was driven by Cold War concerns about nuclear war, radiation, power plant meltdowns, and a culture of protest against centralized power.

The other point of view comes via the rapid rise of a movement that sees atomic energy as essential to a carbon-free energy system in the face of climate change. That movement is driven by a narrative that climate change is the biggest threat facing the planet and justifies extraordinary, all-hands-on-deck measures. It got a shot in the arm when Governor Gavin Newsom decided to extend Diablo Canyon’s life because renewable energy is not coming online fast enough to replace its output, along with the output of fossil fuel burning plants that need to be closed.

At the start of our reporting, we did not foresee a third viewpoint: the YTT’s own, unique perspective on Diablo Canyon and nuclear energy.

The tribe had been hoping that decommissioning Diablo Canyon would provide a pathway to get its land back. Under California Public Utility Commission rules, Pacific Gas & Electric is required to give Native American tribes a first right of refusal for any lands that the utility decides to sell. The YTT were deep into discussions with the company and had lined up philanthropic commitments of support to buy the pristine coastal land surrounding the plant.

Governor Newsom’s decision surprised them.

“We did not see it coming,” YTT vice-president Wendy Lucas told us. They could understand the reason, she said, because the state was not ready to replace the electricity generated by the plant — nearly nine percent of the state’s total — with renewable sources.

“But it was still shocking,” Lucas said, “because we had put so much effort into maneuvering with the idea that the plant would be shut down. But we repeated, over and over and over again, no matter what happens, our goal is to get our land back, to be able to steward the land once again.”

Scott Lathrop, CEO of the YTT Northern Chumash nonprofit organization, who had been directing the tribe’s effort to buy back the land, took the governor’s decision in stride. “Instead of a land-back strategy under decommissioning, it’s now a land-back strategy under continued operation,” Lathrop said. “It didn’t matter to us one way or the other.”

Lathrop continued to work with a consortium he had put together—including the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, and REACH, a regional economic development coalition—to purchase the property and develop plans for economic development on the industrial parcel occupied by the power plant. Lathrop told us he believes the nuclear power plant is an asset. “It’s a manmade asset,” he said. “But it’s something that probably we should not just destroy without utilizing that asset.” He added: “I believe down the road, 100 years, 200 years, there’s going to be a coexistence.”

The plant kept 14 miles of California coastline in much the same condition it was in when the YTT were subjected to the genocidal policies inflicted on all California Indians during the era of Spanish and Mexican colonization and early statehood. “Our goal from the very beginning is that these lands look this way now,” Wendy Lucas told us, “and will still look this way a thousand, 5,000 years from now. That has been the one blessing with the power plant there—that these lands were saved. And we want them to continue to be conserved in this manner.”

The path forward is not entirely clear. The California legislature included $160 million for conservation and economic development in the bill extending the power plant’s lifetime, and everyone expects the tribe to participate in some way. But a plan has yet to be finalized.

YTT tribal chairwoman Mona Olivas Tucker is insistent that the tribe be at the center of the deal. “Nobody’s handing it to us on a silver platter,” she told us. “We’re just fighting for the opportunity to buy it. And it’s just so ironic to me that land that was stolen from us, you know, and we’re fighting for the chance to buy it back. This was taken from us, and we want it back because we’re caretakers, we’re stewards. This is a place that can be safe in our hands for a long time. And we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.”


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Harvey
Harvey
28 days ago

Lets get real, Yes in hindsight mistakes were made by “people” in the past, but I don’t believe WE (all of us) should be required to suffer from things done in the past. This Power Plant is vital to everyone and our National Security. We all need to and needed to make sacrifices in the past to assure our National Security. Just leave it be for the sake of OUR country.
Be Safe my Friends
Harvey

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