A 'David vs. Goliath' tale of how a small environmental group helped close the San Onofre nuclear power plant

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When Southern California Edison made the surprise announcement last week that it would shut down San Onofre, nuclear foes were jubilant. 

While there have been many activists working for decades to close to the plant, there was one small environmental group, Friends of the Earth, that was especially key to its demise.

“This is David versus Goliath,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

It was the petition that his group filed with federal regulators that eventually toppled Goliath.

The majority owner of San Onofre, Southern California Edison, is part of Edison International, a $15 billion dollar company with over 16,000 employees.

Friends of the Earth has an operating budget of about $6 million dollars, and about 30 employees.

“This was a huge victory,” said Pica.

Friends of the Earth rejoined fight last year

Carlsbad-based nuclear activist Ace Hoffman has been fighting San Onofre for more than two decades. And he says for many of those years, it was a lonely pursuit.

“There were three of us going to these Nuclear Regulatory Commission meetings,” said Hoffman.

And that included his wife.

But then the opposition intensified after the Fukishima nuclear plant disaster in 2011. Then there was the discovery of problems at San Onofre’s new steam generators less than a year later.

That’s when Friends of the Earth rejoined the fight.

“We had a core group that was already active, and they swooped in and they had resources,” said Hoffman. “They had people back East that had equipment and knowledge. They knew how to use social media and media and when to take out ads. And they had these legal things they were doing.”

The legal maneuvering by the six lawyers Friends of the Earth had working on the case turned out to be key. The group argued that Edison should have to go through lengthy hearings – similar to a trial – before restarting.

In May,  a panel at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – or NRC - sided with the group.

“We knew that this was a very hefty well reasoned ruling when we didn’t hear a lot of objections coming from Edison when it was handed down,” said Pica.

At the time, officials at the NRC insisted the decision wasn’t as definitive as it seemed and suggested the plant could still restart without lengthy hearings.

But Edison executives concluded that the ruling meant they had less than a 50 percent chance of restarting before the end of yearAnd that meant keeping the plant staffed with about 1,500 workers – while waiting for a decision – no longer made financial sense.

 “Rather than continue to spend approximately $30 million a month to keep the plant ready for restart and prolong the uncertainly surrounding the plant, we have decided to no longer seek restart,” Edison CEO Theodore Craver told analysts on Friday.

Kendra Ulrich, one of four fulltime staffers Friends of the Earth devoted to San Onofre, was not expecting such a swift resolution.

“We were all geared up for the summer and it was kind of a surprise that they pulled the plug this early,” Ulrich said.

Anti-San Onofre campaign mostly funded by "a few" individuals

Nuclear is far from Friends of the Earth’s only cause, which range from fighting genetic engineering to working to protect marine sanctuaries.

The group describes itself as: “doing what needs to be done, rather than what is seen as politically feasible or politically correct.”

It’s affiliated with Friends of the Earth International, which is active in 74 countries.

Unlike some other environmental groups, Friends of the Earth doesn’t accept corporate money. Where it does get its funding is somewhat of a mystery.

The 2011 tax forms filed with the IRS shows more than $5 million dollars in revenue from “contributions, gifts and grants.” It lists no revenue from membership dues or fundraising events.

Ulrich says most of the anti-San Onofre campaign was paid for by just a few individuals, but she wouldn’t name names.

“I would prefer not to go into that,” said Ulrich. “But there have been some very generous individuals in Southern California who have made this work possible.”

It’s work Friends of the Earth started doing in 1969, when the group was founded in San Francisco. One of its first goals was to shut down the then brand new San Onofre nuclear plant.

Now, 43 years later, it finally succeeded.

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