San Onofre

Copyright 2007 by Phillip Good

1.  Dolly Parton by The Sea

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant can produce 2,710 Megawatts of electricity when all three of its reactors are operating at full power, enough to supply all the electrical needs of Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties and leave a Megawatt or so over to sell on the open market.  To produce the same amount of electricity as the 30 tons of nuclear fuel consumed each year by San Onofre reactor unit 2 or 3 would require 2.3 million tons of atmosphere-polluting coal, or ten billion barrels of shore-bird destroying oil, or 54 billion cubic feet of irreplaceable natural gas.

      The San Onofre plant is perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the endless series of rolling breakers that the long-board surfers love can be glimpsed through the gantries that connect reactor units 2 and 3.  The ventilator-tipped concrete domes that house these two reactors, each 173 feet high and 159 feet across, give San Onofre its common name, "Dolly Parton by The Sea."

      The much smaller Unit 1, a pilot plant built during the early phases of the project, blends in with the other buildings, its flattened, slightly-conical top covered with a twenty-year accumulation of gull droppings.  Though smaller, the people who work at San Onofre treat this reactor with the same respect they give the two other sleeping bombs.  For the same nuclear energy that satisfies the electrical needs of three and one-half million people could, if released in a single explosive burst, destroy 300,000 lives.  An explosion in one of the three Southern California Edison reactors would level the nearby town of San Clemente and turn the entire Southern California coast line, California's Riviera, into a nuclear wasteland.

      All of the workers at San Onofre are concerned with safeguarding the nuclear materials that are stored there from theft or sabotage.  Fully one-third of the employees have no other responsibilities than to supervise the handling, transport, and storage of dangerous radioactive materials.  As many or more of the workers are involved with maintaining the security of the plant as are directly involved with the generation of nuclear power!

      Besides the security forces, who range from the familiar guard at the gate who inspects your car to an entire SWAT team of crack marksmen, hundreds of clerks track the progress of the uranium pellets as they move from the mine to the reactor core, and hundreds more check the daily conduct of the plant.

      Five levels of security forces ring the plant, six if you count the marines at nearby Camp Pendleton.  The first level is hidden back in the offices of Security; they arrange for the screening of new employees, including an FBI check, if necessary, and for the training and additional screening of any employees who will have direct access to nuclear materials.  The second level, the guards at the gates who inspect you and your automobile on entry, receive pretty much the same training and have pretty much the same background as the guards at any other industrial facility.  They tend to be older, near retirement and are there as much to turn away the tourist headed for the nearby State Park as to provide any real security.

      The third level, installed after 9/11, consists of machines that scan, sniff and inspect all incoming personnel and vehicles.

      The fourth level of guard, whole platoons of them, work inside the plant, in the so-called protected areas adjacent to the reactors.  Many of these guards are contract employees, but all have been trained to work in and around radioactive materials and to recognize the dangers associated with them.  Anyone whose job requires access to radioactive materials has to pass through these guards, at least once, and usually two or three times on the way into the reactor core.  A series of unbribeable computer-controlled doors also monitor access to the reactor area.  The guards at the highest level of security are all full-time employees of Southern California Edison, the utility that owns the San Onofre power station.  These men (only two women are in this group and both are employed in a secretarial capacity) receive training in paramilitary or SWAT techniques.  If a gang of terrorists decides to crash the San Onofre site, they will do so under steady gunfire.

      But neither terrorists nor foreign power is likely to make the attempt.  The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is actually located on federal land that has been leased from the adjacent Camp Pendleton Marine base.  A routine training exercise for the Marine recruits involves the rapid grouping of forces, usually two or three companies, into a defensive perimeter around SONGS.  When Russian or Chinese trawlers are seen offshore, an escort of U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers won't be far behind.  At least once a year, the Navy and Marines hold a joint exercise, landing troops on the beaches to the south of the plant.  The surfers scramble for cover as the big gray ships move in for the landing and the sky turns black and noisy with the helicopters and gunboats that are assisting.

      Although the security forces number in the hundreds, the regulatory affairs people number in the thousands.  "Ideally," as E.T. Simpson, the site supervisor is fond of saying, "everyone at San Onofre considers themselves part of regulatory affairs."  It is regulatory affairs' job to ensure all activities at San Onofre are conducted by the book, and that "book" has several hundred volumes.  The first dozen volumes contain the regulations, the official pronouncements of the Nuclear Research Council, or NRC, an agency of the United States government.  The remainder, which have been put together by San Onofre's management with NRC approval, spell out each working procedure and each employee's functions in detail.  As a San Onofre employee, either you adhere to these procedures or you may plan on working somewhere else tomorrow and perhaps even later on today.

      For the object of all this regulatory effort with its four tons of paper each and every year is to ensure no mistakes are made in the handling of nuclear materials.  No mistakes, none, neither small ones like the gauge failure at Three Mile Island that resulted in the evacuation of several hundred people from the surrounding community, or large ones like the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine where hundreds died at the site of the explosion and thousands more across Europe and Asia and the Americas had an increased incidence of cancer, leukemia, and birth defects throughout the next two generations.

       To be fair, and to give well-deserved credit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the accident record of the American nuclear power industry is pretty good.  In fact, at San Onofre, it is better than good.  San Onofre has never had even a first stage alert—"possible malfunction," although, on several occasions, one or more of the reactors has been shut down for a period of days or weeks for preventive maintenance, maintenance that ensures no malfunction does occur.  The NRC and San Onofre management recognize that anyone can make a mistake, I can, you can.  But if people work by the book, in teams, and never alone in a hazardous area, if even the backups have backups, a mistake won't go uncorrected for long.

      Is all this paper worth it, an engineer might ask herself, after spending four hours filling out requests and reports on a ten-minute repair.  Probably, yes, for sure, would be the answer, especially if the employee has children, or a family, or just a significant other that she cares about.

      To guard against the occasional employee bent on self-destruction, Southern California Edison runs regular psychological profiles on each incoming employee and contractor and tests and reexamines every employee at least once every three years.  Random drug tests—for alcohol as well as narcotics, along with locker and vehicle inspections eliminate those whose fitness for duty is questionable.  Of course, no amount of safeguards can protect the plant from a single dedicated political activist, one who can pass a sanity test and a detailed security investigation, and yet, just to make a point, is willing to blow up a multibillion-dollar industrial facility, kill 3,000 civilian and military employees, contaminate 250,000 acres and a half-mile of the best surfing beach in the country, and blight and endanger 3 1/2 million human lives.  But then, how likely is it such a person would apply for a job here?