Atomic Plant Casts a Pall on Paradise
May 12, 2002
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
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
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.'