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Rancho Seco nuclear power station, closed down by referendum in 1989, California, United States


In June 1989, residents of Sacramento, California, voted to shut down their utility's only nuclear power plant (1). The plant was closed by a public vote in 1989, a decade before its operating license was to expire.  The vote was 53.4 percent to shut the plant and 46.6 percent to keep it open.

The reactor, 25 miles from Sacramento, was built at a cost of US $375 million. It  operated fitfully during its 15-year history, producing less than 40 percent of the electricity that would have resulted from unfailing year-round operation. Opponents of the plant argued that despite $400 million in new investment in the last three years, it would be far cheaper to retire it halfway through its expected life span, and buy power from other utilities in California. Although the vote centered on the economics, it took place against a backdrop of nationwide concern over the safety of nuclear power plants. The reactor's design was similar to that at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, where a score-melting accident occurred in March 1979, and Rancho Seco has had other accidents of its own. (1).  Opponents of nuclear power, who had lost 14 similar referendums in 10 states during the last 13 years, took heart from the Sacramento outcome. The vote was 111,867 in favor of the shutdown and 97,460 opposed, with about 40 percent of registered voters casting ballots. Advocates of atomic power asserted at the time that looming electricity shortages in the East and increased concern over coal burning's contribution to global warming would offer an opportunity for new reactors. But the closing down on Rancho Seco in 1989 (three years after Chernobyl in the Soviet Union) plus the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 meant that the American nuclear power industry had reached its peak.   

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Rancho Seco nuclear power station, closed down by referendum in 1989, California, United States
Country:United States of America
State or province:California
Location of conflict: Clay Station, Herald, 25 miles SE of Sacramento
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Nuclear power plants
Specific commodities:Electricity

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The 913 MWe Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactor achieved criticality on 16 September 1974 and entered commercial operation on 17 April 1975. In 2005 the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that an accident in Rancho Seco in 1986 (3) was the third most serious safety-related occurrence in the United States (Behind the Three Mile Island accident and the cable tray fire at Browns Ferry). The plant operated from April 1975 to June 1989 but had a lifetime capacity utilization average of only 39%; it was closed by public vote on 7 June 1989. Operation of the recreational area was assumed by SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) in 1992. There is a recreation park in the area (after the reactor was closed) but 493 nuclear fuel assemblies remained stored in casks in concrete bunkers. The assemblies held 22 metric tons of uranium, said Einar Ronningen manager of Rancho Seco assets for SMUD. There are plans to remove the stored nuclear waste (2).

Level of Investment for the conflictive project750,000,000
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:400,000
Start of the conflict:1975
End of the conflict:06/1989
Company names or state enterprises:Babcock & Wilcox
Pacific Gas and Electricity from United States of America
Relevant government actors:SMUD Sacramento Municipal Utility District (owner of the plant)
Governor of California
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:- Sacramentans for SAFE Energy (SAFE) called for the SMUD board of directors to commission a study of the safety and economic risks associated with Rancho Seco. 1986.
- Abalone Alliance. In late 1981, Alliance activists along with local opposition held an eight-day sit-in at the State Capitol, encouraging Governor Jerry Brown to use emergency powers to shut down the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station.

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Referendum other local consultations
Occupation of buildings/public spaces


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Air pollution, Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Other Environmental impactsNuclear waste
Health ImpactsVisible: Deaths, Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Potential: Occupational disease and accidents
Other Health impactsThere were deaths in accidents in the plant
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Project cancelled
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:A referendum in 1989 stopped this nuclear power station, when still had a licence to run for many years.

Sources & Materials

(2) April 28, 2016. Sacramento Bee. Company seeks to store nuclear waste from Rancho Seco, other power plants. BY EDWARD ORTIZ

Cooling Accident at Rancho Seco Chills Nuclear Power Industry. August 31, 1986|STEVE GEISSINGER | Associated Press

Article in wikipedia

(1) New York Times, "Voters, in a First, Shut Down Nuclear Reactor". By MATTHEW L. WALD. June 8, 1989

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant is now a ghost. 18 Mar 2011. SMUD's closed Rancho Seco Nuclear plant is now a ghost -- empty buildings, vacant lots and thick concrete bunkers that safely and securely store used fuel rods.

Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant with a drone.

Meta information

Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2894