Albion Monitor /Features

How Bodega Bay Nixed The Atomic Park

by Simone Wilson

"She was a wonderful friend but a wretched enemy, so you always made sure she was a friend"

Folks around Bodega Bay are still pretty smug about their David and Goliath encounter with PG&E back in the 1960s. Why shouldn't they be? When Pacific Gas and Electric announced plans to create a nuclear power plant on Bodega Head, there was no Coastal Commission and no California Environmental Quality Act. But when the dust cleared, PG&E had scrapped the plans and there was nothing but a big crater where the nuclear reactor would have been -- a site locals now call The Hole in the Head.

In 1961 PG&E announced plans for an atomic reactor on the picturesque promontory near the southern end of Sonoma County. The Public Utilities Commission okayed the permit, subject to approval from the Atomic Energy Commission. PG&E started digging a 70-foot shaft for the reactor and put up signs announcing "The Atomic Park."

Then Rose Gaffney got mad.

A rancher with holdings out on Bodega Head, Gaffney was (to use a geologic word) flinty. "She was a wonderful friend but a wretched enemy," recalls Don Howe of Salmon Creek, "so you always made sure she was a friend." Even friends of the feisty landholder called her stubborn and irascible. (She once told a reporter Bodega Bay was "a village of 350 souls and a few heels.") Her spread included the mud flats where fishermen moored their boats, a stretch of land PG&E now wanted to acquire for its road out to the Head.

Gaffney wasn't keen on selling her land, and eventually she got riled about the whole project. The irresistible force (the world's largest utility) had met the proverbial immovable object (Gaffney).

Locals credit the prickly rancher as the one who really galvanized public opinion against the plant. Other opponents included Hazel Mitchell, a Bodega Bay waitress who was shocked when hundreds of people signed her petition against the plant, and Doris Sloan, later a professor of environmental science at Berkeley. When Sloan who took geologist Pierre Saint-Amand on a walking tour of the site, he discovered a flaw PG&E had overlooked: The San Andreas Fault, the Bad Boy of California quakes, went right through Bodega Head.

Armed with this geologic ammunition, locals lobbied hard for PG&E to pack up and go away. Geologists from the Kennedy administration confirmed the fault. PG&E pressed to build the reactor anyway, but in 1963 the PUC turned down their request. The dramatic 8.5 Anchorage quake in 1964 caused slippage on Bodega Head, which put the idea to rest for good.

PG&E sold the land they had acquired to State Parks for $1. The Hole in the Head is now a duck-pond, a favorite stop-over on the Pacific Flyway, and the Head is now part of Sonoma Coast State Beaches. It's a park alright, but not an atomic one.

Albion Monitor December 3, 1995 (

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