How protesters plan to pull switch on Diablo nuclear project

Outside an old, converted garage in a Hispanic part of town known as Echo Park, 20 people strongly opposed to nuclear power sit in a circle -- strangers who, when they leave, will be allies.

"I'm Kevin Muldoon," says one husky young man to the group. "I came because I'm tired of talking and not doing anything about it." A woman named Wendy confesses that she "will sleep a little better knowing I've done something." A young mother says "I came because of him," referring to the young boy she clasps loosely on her lap.

They may be among the hundreds of protesters gathering near San Luis Obispo, Calif., to launch the antinuclear movement's most visible action in years -- a blockade of the $2 billion Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, focus of the longest-running nuclear power plant debate in the country.

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) facility, on the coast 200 miles north of Los Angeles, is ready to begin low-power testing at the site. A final vote of approval on a testing license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected Sept. 21. An operating license, however, is still a few months and more public hearings away.

Opponents are continuing legal efforts to shut the plant. Nonetheless, the Abalone Alliance, a coalition of 70 antinuclear groups from around the state, is committed to preventing Diablo from operating -- either on a test of full-power basis. On Sept. 9, when the NRC Appeals Board cleared the way for final NRC approval, the alliance set in motion a plan to invade the site -- walking in by road, hiking in through rugged, back-country hills, and swimming in through the cove that abuts the site.

Once there participants are to practice passive resistance with law-enforcement authorities (a one-day course in nonviolent training is required to all protesters). If arrested, demonstrators are asked to plan to return after their release. Because participants have been asked to plan a 30-day stay (an 85-acre campsite is provided, but protesters must bring their own supplies), protest organizers hope to send in a continuous wave of demonstrators.

Law-enforcement officials -- whose predict between 1,500 and 60,000 protesters -- are determined to prevent the blockade. Local county sheriffs already are mobilized, as are the California Highway Patrol, the state's National Guard, and the US Coast Guard, which is policing the seacoast.

Protest organizers say, however, that even if their efforts to shut down Diablo are thwarted (a possibility widely expected by observers), they will still have scored a victory simply by staging the protest.

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