Priesthoods and Power : Some Thoughts on Diablo Canyon

Published in Mapping American Culture, University of Iowa Press, 1992.

As soon as I moved to San Luis Obispo from the San Francisco Bay Area, I fell in love with the place–its creekside plaza, its downtown volcanoes, its nearby bluffs and beaches. But after several months of exploring idyllic attractions, I found myself drawn by a different feature of the local landscape: the spot at the center of the map on the Emergency Information brochure I received in the mail; the spot that the siren on my street corner blared about on Saturday morning; the spot that I was reminded of by stickers in the hallways at work that read “Radiation Shelter.” I wanted to put myself at ground zero and to experience a direct encounter with the source of energy that heats my shower, runs my computer and threatens my life.

So I called the electric company, PG and E, and signed up for a free tour of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Two days later I parked in front of Sears and climbed into a van along with five other visitors. The guide handed me a security badge, a small brochure with a tasteful brush painting of a nuclear reactor on its cover, and a questionnaire asking me how informed I was on “power plant history, plant construction, wildlife protection, marine biology research, nuclear power production, Chumash archaeological site, public safety,” and asking my opinion on whether nuclear power was “generally safe, neutral, somewhat unsafe…generally efficient, neutral, somewhat inefficient.” I could see I was going to be tested.

On the drive to Avila Beach, the guide, who was also a ranking security officer, recounted the history of the plant’s construction as a series of rational calculations in the face of public hysteria and mob violence. After we gained clearance at the first security gate, the barrier went up and we crossed a wide blue line on the road. This, he pointed out, was the border that the demonstrators had tried unsuccessfully for decades to storm, the line at which order had stemmed chaos.

The roadway itself typified the cosmic energies mobilized for the creation of the plant: it was built of reinforced concrete four feet thick and 60 feet wide to accommodate the 192-wheeled “transporter” that carried equipment from barges in the bay to the construction site, and its curves were specially unbanked to keep the the 400 ton reactor containment vessels from swaying on the way. This road also typified the ultra-advanced technology that made the plant a showpiece of safety and efficiency– a totally computerized facility that runs by “paperless management,” fully monitors itself, and constantly “talks to you.”

He drove slowly along the unbanked roadway, winding twelve miles through a protective buffer zone of oak-studded hills and flowery pastures overlooking the sea –an 11,000 acre wildlife preserve where we sighted hawk, deer and a badger. He told us about the environmental study center built on site and maintained by the company to protect the endangered species of bird and sea life that make it their home and to study the uniquely rich ecosystem that thrives in the heated waters of the bay. He told us about the power company’s production of new fish habitat, like the artificial reef along Pecho rock made from concrete sections of the breakwater destroyed by 1983 storms, and about the salmon enhancement program at the mouth of San Luis Creek. It was an account of a symbiotic cocreation between nature and human artifice nestled in a suitably Edenic setting.

Soon we arrived at another gateway. Our guide explained that before we could pass this second barrier, the guard would have to examine our badges. There were two further and more thorough check-points that we could not penetrate: the entrance to the actual plant and within that, the entrance to the reactor area. I was disappointed by this exclusion, but the sense of crossing one threshold after another and the prospect of live nuclear reactions taking place in my presence stimulated my imagination. I was now on a pilgrimage, drawn, in Mircea Eliade’s words, by an “Ontological thirst… to take a stand at the very heart of the real, at the Center of the World–that is, exactly where the cosmos came into it was in the beginning, … fresh from the Creator’s hands, and… where too there is the possibility of communications with the gods.”1

Once cleared, we rounded a turn in the road and the forbidden valley suddenly came in sight. I felt strangely secured, as if I’d been snapped into a socket and reduced in size by the magnified landscape that surrounded me. The feeling reminded me of my first view of Yosemite Valley at age twelve, and of what a friend once tried to convey about arriving at the Delphic shrine in Greece. A mountain peak soared 1500 feet above a wide shelf of seaside cliffs. It was flanked by a canyon through which a stream crashed into a perfectly formed cove guarded by majestic headlands and a wave-sculpted island covered with sea lions. In the center, dominating this splendid panorama, stood an immense assemblage of rectangular monoliths, breastlike domes, and delicate webs that throbbed and hummed and crackled. It appeared to me as some vast temple, sucking matter from the unformed waters, reaching for the heavens with its observatory-like towers, and beaming out energy through high tension wires that ran from its heart and disappeared in all directions over the surrounding ridges.

We parked at an overlook above the plant while the guide explained the workings of the reactor: the fissioning uranium heats water to steam which heats other water to steam which runs the turbines that generate the electricity. Enough of it is produced here to supply two million people, 14 % of the PG and E system, the equivalent of 23 million barrels of oil per year. The fuel is a few tons of uranium; the waste, a few pounds of plutonium. He made it sound matter of fact, but to me it was pure magic : the production of limitless quantities of power in a clean, benevolent recycling process. What more appropriate use for such an awesome location?

As we drove around the back of the plant down through the canyon and emerged at its mouth above the cliffs, the guide pointed out a fenced area that surrounds the headland and remains off limits even to PG and E employees. Discovered in the process of excavating for the reactor, it was a major ancient village site and burial ground, containing evidence of nine thousand years of continuous habitation by the Chumash, one of the California Indian tribes whose existence was almost fully extinguished early in this century. He told us that photographs proving that the site has not been disturbed are sent annually to an intertribal religious organization who now use it occasionally for traditional celebrations of the Winter solstice.

As if bombarded by some stray neutrons from inside the plant, my imagination became more excited; I realized that this had been a unique power spot long before PG and E’s arrival. I had just been reading a new book on the Chumash, and in the concluding chapter on religion and mythology the author had described just such sacred spaces. The ceremonial ground I was looking at would have been demarcated by woven boughs, feathered banners and a fence of whale jaws to create a Siliyik or Antap. The mana or power concentrated in these spots was viewed as left over from the time of creation, an incorporeal force that allows one to travel out of body, transform the shape of objects, heal illness, make rain. Access to this space and its power was permitted only to priests and priestesses of the Antap cult. Organized as a grid uniting diverse regions and tribes, this priesthood shared ritual and practical knowledge, especially of astronomy and meteorology. One of their primary functions was to help the gods balance the contrary forces controlling nature at times when such equilibrium was threatened. The Winter solstice, when their remarkably accurate calendars predicted that the path of the sun would reverse direction, was the most dangerous of such times. Every year in their Siliyiks, they carried out elaborate three-day ceremonies to help pull the sun back from its southward moving path.2

I tried to imagine what the shamans who come back here think as they stand in this place on December 21 in the shadow of the reactor bedecked with Christmas tree lights. Is it that their power has been driven out by an alien power that is destroying their mother earth, or do they sense, as John Michell has put it, that ” strangers may conquer the land, imposing their own gods and cults on the natives, but the sacred places and dates of their festivals remain the same as before, the attributes of the new deities are accommodated to the old, and the invaders become in time subject to the traditions of the country.” 3

I wondered whether the electric company’s transformation of the landscape was not similar to what other native American shamans carried out in Aztec and Mayan cities, in the construction of temples and earthworks and river diversions as massive, impressive and intrusive on the landscape as this plant. I wondered whether the spiritual power that fuels and structures native societies is not similar to the occult power that fuels and structures ours; I wondered whether the Indian technicians of the sacred and our contemporary sacred technicians perform the identical function of mediating between the rest of us humans and the mysterious, dangerous and nourishing forces of the universe.

My reflections recalled those of another outsider who described an experience of awe in the face of such power. “The dynamo, [or electric generator]” Henry Adams wrote in 1900, became a symbol of infinity…a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the cross….Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force….He had entered a supersensual world…. Physics [had gone] stark mad in metaphysics. The rays…were occult, supersensual, irrational; they were a revelation of mysterious energy…they were what, in terms of medieval science, were called immediate modes of the divine substance.4 Like Adams at the Paris exposition, here at Diablo canyon I had received an epiphany.

The final stop on our tour was at the training building, where we were instructed about reactor safety. We entered the simulated control room, a large space filled floor to ceiling with thousands of dials, screens, switches and blinking lights which exactly replicates the real control room operating the plant from inside the fourth perimeter. Some men were reading printouts, leafing through manuals, talking on the phone, conferring briefly. The guide told us they were either trainees who study here for up to seven years before becoming licensed, or they were qualified operators who spend one out of every five weeks practising for emergencies. All systems in the plant contain multiple redundancy, so that any foulups can be bypassed. Thus, it is unthinkable that a disaster like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl could happen here. The evacuation procedures and sirens are only technicalities required by law.

What could I say? Along with my vision of power came a sense of acceptance and reconciliation with those who controlled it–the priests of PG and E. In the van, on the way back to Sears, I checked off the positive responses on the questionnaire, returned it to the guide, sat back, and left the driving to him.

Six months later a colleague in the history department handed me a call for papers for an academic conference he was coordinating on “Place in American Culture.” Suggested topics included studies of “American sacred places and pilgrimages” and “the ‘spirit’ and meaning of particular places…e.g., Diablo Canyon.” I took the lure and sent in a proposal outlining the story I have just told. When I received notice of acceptance, I got very nervous and decided to arm myself with a little research.

The further I proceeded, the less satisfied I became with my original approach.First I read some more about the Chumash priests. According to Thomas Blackburn, the power derived from the gods was regarded as less benevolent than I had thought. In most native accounts, “beings with exceptional power are characterized as dangerous or antipathetic to man.”5

According to Lowell J. Bean, those humans who held power were treated with respect and awe, but also with considerable caution, since they were “potentially amoral in their relationships with others. Their allegiance is to power, both the maintenance of power and the acquisition of more power, and thus primarily to other persons of power…[rather than] the claims of the local social order.” One’s relation to power determined one’s place in an elaborate social hierarchy, a chain of being which guaranteed privilege, wealth, status and leisure to those in possession of its secrets and exploited those who were excluded. “…priests and shamans…controlled the principal means of production and distribution of goods, owned monopolies on many goods and services… possessed the power to levy taxes, fines and establish fees to support institutions, and were able to charge exorbitant interest on loans, thus amassing further wealth.”6

Indeed, a study by Travis Hudson postulated that during the early period of European contact, Chumash priests willingly entered the missions in search of what they perceived as the Christians’ more potent magic and thereby hastened the destruction of their own culture before they discovered that the missionaries were merely leading them on.7

This information about Indian priesthoods spurred me to investigate their successors. According to Richard Rudolph and Scott Ridley, utility executives control more assets than any other group of executives in the U.S.; power is the biggest business in modern America, and half of the income of major investment bankers is estimated to come from financing private power companies.8 These priests are also regarded with caution and skepticism. Amory Lovins characterized their rule as one of “friendly fascism,” while Fortune magazine categorized utility officials as “generally unimaginative men, grown complacent on private monopoly and regulated profits.”9

Studies of the industry concur that the utility priests reached a zenith of prestige and influence during the 1950’s, when visions of taming the destructive force of the bomb into atoms for peace proliferated prophecies that electricity would become so abundant it would be “too cheap to meter.” Encouraged by the federal government, which was eager to maintain American dominance over the international reactor market, the utilities assumed they could easily control the dangers and uncertainties of nuclear power. Demand for electricity was projected to grow indefinitely at a ravenous 7% per year, and liability insurance, which no private carrier would offer, was provided by Congress in form of the Price-Anderson Act, which absolved the companies from any financial responsibility for accidents.

By the late nineteen seventies, however, the vision had dissipated. Fundamental technical problems that should have been dealt with before any plants were built remained unsolved–problems like earthquake safety, what to do with worn-out reactors and the disposal of radioactive wastes. Of the more than two hundred nuclear plants ordered by utility companies, 180 had been cancelled, while the rest were plagued by construction delays, safety violations, objections of surrounding inhabitants, and financial losses, not to speak of hair-raising accidents. Rather than being reduced, the price of power had tripled, while demand actually shrank. Several companies went bankrupt while others defaulted on loans or skipped dividends to investors. The overall cost of the miscalculations was estimated as between $100 to $200 billion, to be divided among stockholders, ratepayers and taxpayers. Forbes magazine called the nuclear energy program ” the largest managerial disaster in business history” (Munson 7).

My reading revealed that despite these mammoth setbacks, in 1980 the industry attempted to resurrect itself with a lobbying and public relations initiative dubbed “The Second Coming of Nuclear Power” which had the full support of the new Reagan administration (Rudolph 239). Tax incentives for alternate energy development and conservation were phased out and replaced with government subsidies for the expansion of coal and nuclear fired technology. The licensing procedures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were speeded up, the public was denied access to them, and the rapidly growing problem of waste disposal was declared solved with a report commissioned by Department of Energy. Produced by the Battelle Memorial Institute, this report recommended that all waste be transported to a central site called “the nuclear stonehenge.” There it would be guarded by

an “atomic priesthood” which would carry out a “ritual and legend”process to warn generations 10,000 years in the future of the danger of radioactive waste buried …three thousand feet down, under a large triangular area bordered by raised mounds. At the center of the site, three twenty-foot tall granite monoliths inscribed with warnings would stand on a concrete mat…. Because our language may be incomprehensible three hundred generations from now,the fatal danger located underground would be communicated by stick figure cartoons engraved on the monoliths. Other warnings might include a symbol resembling three sets of malevolent horns facing outward from a circle, or an undying artificial stench which people and animals would avoid…. The”atomic priesthood” would reinforce these warnings with oral myths that threatened violators of the site with “some sort of supernatural retribution.” (Rudolph 240)

As I marveled at this claptrap, I recognized how close it was to the language and mentality of my treasured epiphany. The equation of electric and spiritual power was not a product of my imagination or of my reading of Henry Adams; it was precisely the way the utility company wanted me to think. At that point, another definition of the word, “power,” came to mind: political power. I saw the shamans and the utility priests both clad in the vestments of what C. Wright Mills called “The Power Elite.” Rather than mediating between the impotent human and omnipotent divine, these priests concentrated power diffused throughout nature and among all people into sacred spaces and private preserves, thereby rendering the rest of the world profane, and the rest of humanity powerless.

I learned that during the last two decades the utility priesthood’s drive to centralize power was threatened by the failures of nuclear and by the concomitant successes of alternative, independent, sources of electricity, including cogeneration, biomass, wind, thermal, and solar. Because government regulations made it illegal for utilities to boycott such sources, they accounted for 40% of California’s energy generating capacity by the middle eighties. As a result a power struggle between the priesthood and its opponents has been taking place all over the country, in federal, state and local governments and also in the streets and in wilderness areas invaded by transmission lines and saboteurs. The power struggle is between what Langdon Winner has called a “political technology” supported by extremely tight security and authoritarian management that can force citizens to accept irreparable environmental damage and pay the astronomical costs of nuclear plants, and those who seek to develop decentralized, autonomous, local sources of power.10

A sample of that opposing power, in its own way as impressive as the priestly energy that created Diablo Canyon is the recent spectacle of decommissioning the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island New York. After twenty years of opposition by local citizens who refused to accept its threat to their lives, their environment, and their solvency, and despite the continuous support of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the $5.5 billion plant was abandoned last June before it ever started up and was sold to the state for one dollar as scrap (NY Times 6/29/89).

I discovered also that a similar twenty year power struggle between local citizens and a utility priesthood had taken place in my new home town of San Luis Obispo, but had led to an opposite outcome. In the county museum, documenting that struggle, I found a large archive collected by Mothers for Peace, the group that organized much of the resistance. Once again I saw that the real power was neither spiritual nor electric, but economic and political, that the plant was here against the will of those most affected by it because of the overwhelming money and influence wielded by the utility in Washington and Sacramento.

Among the clippings, I came across a very down-to-earth and local explanation of how the plant arrived at its magical site. Back in the middle sixties, PG and E wanted to locate it in the Pismo Dunes, but in order to preserve that sensitive area, environmental groups agreed to approve an alternate unseen location. The owner of the Diablo property, a rancher named Marre, was eager to develop condos and a hotel on his holdings in Avila beach, so he offered the company a ninety nine year lease on the 11,000 acres in return for their corporate guarantee of an open line of credit he could use to capitalize his project–the San Luis Bay Inn complex. A few years later, the project went belly up; PG and E sued to take full possession of the land as collateral for his bad debts, and Marre countersued, lending his support to the opponents of the plant. Had the environmentalists not accepted the original deal or had Marre been prevented from pursuing his plans, that sacred spot would have remained an Indian graveyard.

As I concluded my reading, I came across a quotation by a contemporary of Henry Adams that crystallized my changed perspective on the topic of priesthoods and power. In 1928 the conservationist governor of Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot wrote:

We need not be surprised that the State and Federal authorities havestood in awe before this gigantic nationwide power monopoly, because beside it, as its creator, financial supporter,and master, stands the concentrated money power of the world….Therefore the electric power monopoly deserves the fullest public attention. The people ought to know what it is and why it is and how it affects them. All the facts about it ought to be publicly available either through government agencies or private effort. The people must learn to judge intelligently of its advantages and its evils. Everything about it should be investigated fearlessly and published fully, because we must learn to regulate and control it before it smothers and enslaves us.” (cited by Rudolph 263)

To goad myself into writing the conference paper, I went on another Diablo Canyon tour. This time the meeting place was the “Energy Information Center” near Highway 101, and I joined a group of 40 people boarding a lush tour bus. We were led by a pair of very smiling guides, who, it turned out later, could answer few questions that departed from their scripts; they were not PG and E employees but local residents newly hired by a company that contracted to do public relations with the utility. This time as we passed the blue line, they said nothing about the hostile demonstrations, but I remembered the picture in the archives of suited professionals, long-haired adolescents, parents with babies in strollers, and sign-carrying seniors facing off at this border with a line of helmeted, masked and club-bearing police.

As we crossed the second perimeter, I noticed the metal cutouts of human figures distributed up and down the hillsides, practise targets for the sharpshooters always on patrol. At the overlook we were told that unit two was shut down for refueling, that plutonium-rich spent fuel was accumulating underwater in the tank directly below us until the government figured out what to do with it, and that the radioactive containment towers would have to remain here permanently sealed after the plant’s retirement in twenty or thirty years.

At the Indian cemetery I looked backward and realized that layer upon layer of midden was buried under the twenty acre construction site, and I looked seaward remembering a recent statement by USGS geologists that the Hosgri Fault a few miles offshore could easily produce an earthquake larger than the 7.5 magnitude that the plant is built to withstand. In the simulated control room of the operator training facility, I fiddled with switches while two men wearing NRC badges joked with a PG and E employee. On the way out of the room, I noticed that the red light was lit on the coffee machine next to the control console. The water had boiled away leaving a charred and evil- smelling residue of coffee in the bottom of the pot. “Meltdown,” the person in front of me quipped. “Human error,” someone else replied.

On the bus ride back, one guide spoke briefly of the four levels of possible mishap and the four levels of planned response and then waxed enthusiastic about the future of nuclear power in general. The next generation of reactors, he said, will be smaller, less expensive, decentralized and safer than Diablo, which was really a white elephant– too big, too expensive, and too dangerous. I crumpled up my questionnaire and held my stomach as the bus swung too fast around the unbanked curves.


1. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York, 1959) 64-5.

2. Bruce Miller, Chumash: A Picture of their World (Los Osos CA: Sand River Press, l988), 121-8.

3. John Michell, The Earth Spirit: Its Ways, and Mysteries (New York: Avon, 1975), 11.

4. Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Edited by Ernest Samuels (Boston, 1973), 380-383

5. Thomas Blackburn, December’s Child, A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives (Berkeley, 1975), 69

6. John Lowell Bean, “Power and its Application in Native California.” The Journal of California Anthropology (1975) 2:1, 31.\

7. Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay, Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art (Santa Barbara, l978), 17-22

8. Richard Rudolph and Scott Ridley, Power Struggle: The Hundred Year War over Electricity (New York, l986), xi,13.

9. Richard Munson, The Power Makers: The Inside Story of America’s Biggest Business…and its Struggle to Control Tomorrow’s Electricity (Emmaus PA, 1985), 182

10. Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago, 1986) 175.



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