Copyright 2007 by Phillip Good
Dolly Parton by The Sea
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
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
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?