Atomic Plant Casts a Pall on Paradise

May 12, 2002


SAN CLEMENTE, Calif., May 11 - A Sunday on San Onofre State

Beach is a step into the idyllic 1960's Southern California

of Gidget movies. Below a low sandstone bluff, a half-mile

of cars, many of them classics, line a palm-fringed shore.

Around thatched-roof huts, surfers strum ukuleles, grill

burgers or prepare to ride the celebrated waves.


This vision of paradise almost obscures another vestige of

the 1960's rising from the surf a few hundred yards south.

There, two nuclear reactors quietly split atoms and churn

out 20 percent of Southern California's electricity.


It has been like this since the San Onofre Nuclear

Generating Station opened in 1968. The surfers, campers and

residents of San Clemente and other nearby towns have

largely accepted the plant as an unobtrusive, if unwelcome,

neighbor. But since Sept. 11, security concerns and a

proposal for a long-term repository for spent nuclear fuel

have raised alarm.


"We want to believe San O is safe, and that the palm trees,

blue sky and waves are the reality," Steve Netherby said on

a recent walk around the plant. "Unfortunately, the reality

is a lot more dangerous."


Mr. Netherby is a former editor at Field & Stream magazine

and co-founder of San Clemente's Coalition for Responsible

Ethical and Environmental Decisions. He points out that San

Onofre lies amid six miles of popular state beach and south

of growing population centers of southern Orange County. A

quarter-mile to the east runs Interstate 5 and a coastal

rail route. Beyond that sprawls Camp Pendleton, a Marine



The plant's owner, Southern California Edison, and the

Nuclear Regulatory Commission say the plant is safe and



At a public meeting, the regional chief of the commission,

Kriss Kennedy, said of plant security: "There have been

examples in the past where we've been very critical of

facility operations, but in this case, San Onofre has done

a good job."


Yet Mr. Netherby remains skeptical. Despite the presence of

guards wielding M-16's, he walks unchallenged through an

unsecured parking lot overlooking the site, past several

employees. He points out the enormous turbines and

transformers, and the functioning Unit 2 and 3 reactors,

and what appears to be a hole in the side of the

decommissioned Unit 1.


He wonders what would happen if a van drove into the lot

and a terrorist launched a shoulder-fired missile. "It's a

target down there. And that makes all of us here in

Southern California a target," Mr. Netherby said.

Unit 1 is being demolished at a cost of $600 million. Its

site is now proposed for a "dry cask" waste storage system

that would hold spent nuclear fuel.


A San Onofre spokesman, Ray Golden, said the dry casks

offer far greater security and earthquake protection than

the system used now, adding: "The spent fuel is moving from

a pool, which requires human intervention, electricity and

other features, to a completely passive design with no

mechanical components. If you painted that scenario, I

think most people would say, `Hey, it sounds like you

should put it in the passive design.' "


Project opponents agree that the dry casks are somewhat

safer, but question assertions by the Nuclear Regulatory

Commission that these systems can withstand earthquakes.

They also worry that the project would lead to a vast,

long-term increase above the several hundred tons of stored

waste already on site.


Mr. Netherby's group is beginning "an extensive effort" to

make residents aware of the security threats at San Onofre,

the dangers of stored fuel, and the risks posed by

earthquakes and earthquake-spawned tsunami waves.


The group is also asking that local towns begin storing

potassium iodide pills as a radiation antidote, that Camp

Pendleton troops be assigned to San Onofre to augment

security, and that a loudspeaker system be placed on area

beaches alongside existing sirens. They also want the

Federal Aviation Administration to revisit its recent

lifting of a 10-mile no-fly zone around the plant.


Meanwhile, on the beach the party is in full swing. But it

appears that after passing an unattended State Beach guard

kiosk and driving to the south end of the beach, the only

thing that would prevent an attacker from reaching the

sea-wall road fronting the plant is a "no vehicles" sign.

Are beachgoers concerned?


Daniel Dowden, a San Onofre Surf Club member, points to two recent security breaches at

the plant and accidents involving a fire and a construction



"It's a plant run by human beings who've made a lot of

mistakes already," Mr. Dowden said. "I don't say they're

dumber than anybody else, but they're certainly as dumb as

the rest of us, and they're going to make mistakes. I'd

rather those mistakes be out in the desert somewhere where

nobody's around than right here on the beach where we're

completely exposed."


Paul Strau is a Hawaiian surfer who holds a mini-luau with

his friends here every Sunday.


"Even with the danger, you still come down to the beach to

enjoy the ocean," Mr. Strau said. "It takes your mind off

the stresses of the day-to-day world.

"But looming right over the bluff is this edifice that

says, `I could take all of you out real quickly.'

It's scary."