CLEMENTE, Calif., May 11 ó 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
"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 base.
The plant's owner, Southern California Edison, and the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission say the plant is safe and secure.
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
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
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 crane.
"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
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."