Troubles at San Onofre Nuclear Plant Awaken Activists

Plant's problems mobilize local anti-nuclear activists, residents and officials for the first time since the early '80s.

Activists protest and rally against the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant on March
Activists protest and rally against the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2012, the one-year of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan/Credit: Fukushima Remembered protest, facebook

Share this article

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

The groundwork for the activists’ reawakening was laid in 2005, when a California Energy Commission report raised questions about the state’s dependence on its two aging nuclear power plants. Based on those findings, the legislature ordered a 2008 study to determine what would happen if one of the plants had to be shut down for a long period because of earthquake or equipment issues.

Meanwhile, Becker’s group and others were at the state Public Utilities Commission poring over documents and pushing for protections as both SCE and Diablo Canyon operator Pacific Gas & Electric sought permission to raise rates to fund a series of big-ticket projects, including replacing their massive steam generators.

San Onofre’s problems began to make headlines in 2004, when an internal investigation by SCE found that SONGS managers were suppressing worker injury reports to win customer-funded bonuses. Then came falsified fire watch logs, malfunctioning backup emergency diesel generators, retribution against workers who raised safety concerns, warning sirens that went off accidentally in the middle of the night, and a host of other mishaps.

“The reason that we’re gaining momentum and traction in the community and in the media has nothing to do with our effort,” said Headrick of San Clemente Green, which has about 1,500 followers. “Edison just keeps giving us more and more things to question. One thing after another keeps happening—there’s an ammonia leak, or false alarms with the sirens, or a little fire here and there.”

As the list of issues grew, so did concern among people who live near the plant. And when a tsunami unleashed a disaster and radiation at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power reactors in March 2011, fears of similar problems reverberated in Southern California.

Donna Gilmore is among the San Clemente residents who have shed their indifference to the two hulking domes that sit between the Pacific Ocean and Interstate 5, a heavily traveled highway linking Los Angeles and San Diego. She had never attended a NRC public meeting and had never spoken before a city council, but in 2011 she did both. Then she created the San Onofre Safety website to house SONGS developments and information.

“I went from knowing nothing to being one of their key resources and key people in a short period of time,” said Gilmore, a retired manager for the California Department of Transportation. “I’m energized. I’m motivated.”

The emboldened community groups have staged local protests, roused media interest, and helped persuade city councils in the region to send letters to the NRC expressing concern about SONGS operations, spent fuel storage and evacuation plans.

They persuaded the City of Irvine to write a letter to the NRC, asking the agency to reassess the risks the plant poses to the region. They also teamed with other organizations to form a loose coalition called Nuclear Free California, which has already held a handful of ‘summit’ meetings.

The groups have gained expertise and backing from Friends of the Earth U.S., an arm of the international environmental group that hadn’t been involved in SONGS issues for decades. A technical report commissioned by the Washington, D.C.-based grassroots organization recently concluded that design flaws led to SONGS’ steam generator woes. 

For the most part, the groups’ focal point remains the NRC, which saw attendance at its last public meeting jump to 250 people, up from 150 a year earlier. Last month, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (who has since announced his resignation) flew to the area to review the SONGS breakdown and hold a press conference on the outage.  This year, the NRC will host at least three public meetings, with the first set for June 18 in San Juan Capistrano. A large turnout is expected.

More Scrutiny for Diablo Canyon Plant

Even with all that new activity, though, the public’s reengagement in SONGS issues remains well short of the public scrutiny that’s been applied to Diablo Canyon for decades.

Despite being regulated by the same state and federal officials, Diablo Canyon and SONGS have never had equal oversight. San Luis Obispo-based Mothers for Peace  earned the right to present witnesses and formally participate in Diablo Canyon proceedings at the NRC decades ago, and it has kept watch over the plant ever since.

From Diablo Canyon’s first day of operation, an independent safety committee of outside experts reviewed operating records, problems, and NRC violations and analyzed industry-wide issues. While the safety committee has sometimes been criticized for being too cozy with Diablo Canyon owner Pacific Gas & Electric, it has provided the community with a steady outlet for concerns, compiled detailed operational statistics and incident reports, and even organized public tours of the plant three times per year.

SONGS has had neither of those independent oversight avenues.

“There wasn’t the equivalent organization around San Onofre,” said James Boyd, who served on the state Energy Commission when it produced reports on SONGS and Diablo Canyon. “PG&E and Diablo Canyon was just put under the electron microscope a long time ago, and that’s the way it’s stayed.”