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.