Ongoing troubles at Southern California's San Onofre nuclear power plant have galvanized area residents, city officials and environmental groups—putting an emphatic end to a complacency that was unusual for a densely populated region with a nuclear plant in its midst.
These days, public meetings about San Onofre are jammed with residents and media outlets. Local groups are calling for the plant's closure, city councils are demanding assurances about safety, Friends of the Earth and other national groups are re-engaged, and the actions and statements of both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and operator Southern California Edison (SCE) are being examined like never before.
San Onofre's most recent problem—a leak and excessive wear inside its new steam generators—is so troubling that both reactors have been shut down. Last week, SCE said the plant will stay off line through August, extending the outage to seven months and forcing utilities to cover the power loss during hot summer weather.
"It's a new ballgame out there," said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a San Luis Obispo-based group that focuses on California's two operating nuclear power plants. "Now you've got a community that's speaking out and that’s not going away, and you've got legislators who are concerned."
This kind of scrutiny has been the norm in communities surrounding nuclear plants in New York, Vermont and even Central California, where the state's other nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is located near San Luis Obispo.
But public involvement took a different path at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (known as SONGS), a seaside twin-reactor plant near San Clemente, one of a string of small coastal cities between Los Angeles and San Diego. National and local groups waged a spirited fight to block construction of SONGS' reactors, which were completed in the early 1980s. But interest faded soon afterward, leaving just a handful of devoted anti-nuclear activists to raise questions about the facility's operations.
"We all kind of let our guard down a bit after that, to tell you the truth," said Gary Headrick, founder of San Clemente Green, a sustainability group that in 2010 shifted its focus to closing SONGS. "People just didn't want to hear about it. The reassurances that you hear all the time—they kind of made sense, and there was enough of a grey area to give them the benefit of the doubt."
SCE, the plant's majority owner, knows those days are probably over. "We have increased our community involvement. We make sure that we are out there in the community every single day," said spokeswoman Jennifer Manfrè. As for Headrick's group and the others, "We’re definitely engaged with them. We listen to their concerns and provide facts ... it's not possible to not listen."
How the Reawakening Began