Japan Quake Sparks Nuclear Energy Worries In Calif.

March 16, 2011

Carrie Kahn

Mark Ralston
The San Onofre power plant is one of California's two nuclear power plants located near active earthquake faults. The other is Diablo Canyon power plant in San Luis Obispo County.
Carrie Kahn
Gary Headrick, an architect and environmentalist who lives near the plant, was one of several activists to push the San Clemente City Council to ask Southern California Edison to update its safety plans.

In California, residents living near the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which is near an active earthquake fault, have been watching the events in Japan and wondering if a similar disaster could happen here.

The double concrete domed San Onofre facility, one of the state's two nuclear power plants located near active earthquake faults, is about 50 miles north of San Diego. Authorities at both plants have been reassuring residents that the facilities are safe.

Jordan Wies, 19, who lives near the San Onofre plant, says he didn't think much about it before the events in Japan, but now he wants to know more about its operations.

"What's their plan, what is their fail-safe for when something does happen, because it's very possible," Wies says.

San Onofre has been operating since the 1980s. At the time it was licensed, scientists estimated that the strongest earthquake that could hit the region would be 6.5.

So, officials for Southern California Edison, which operates San Onofre, put in an extra margin of safety. They built the plant capable of withstanding a 7.0 quake.

But local environmentalist Gary Headrick says recent studies show the risk of larger earthquakes could be greater. Headrick is an architect and lives in San Clemente, the closest town to the power plant.

"Prior to the Japan incident, our position was that we just wanted to make sure they are operating safely. Now that is all different," Headrick says.

Headrick says the plant needs to be shut down. On Tuesday night, he and a group of other activists convinced the San Clemente City Council to ask Southern California Edison to update its safety plans.

Southern California Edison Spokesman Steve Conroy says the company understands residents are worried, but the plant has never been safer.

"Our main focus, and it has been since this plant has operated, is safety — safe operation of this facility," Conroy says.

Conroy says not only can the plant handle a 7.0 earthquake, it's also protected by a 30-foot-tall tsunami wall.

But San Onofre has been fraught with problems. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has cited it for repeated safety violations. Employees were caught falsifying logs and managers were reprimanded for retaliating against workers voicing safety concerns.

Lara Uselding with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the plant has shown much progress in the last two years, but for the near future the agency will keep an additional inspector on site.

"We will continue to have the enhanced oversight to ensure that they address other areas that need improvement," Uselding says.

Despite San Onofre's spotty safety record, not everyone is worried about the nuclear plant. Life-long San Clemente resident Jeff Unmacht surfs in front of it nearly everyday.

"It's kind of an eyesore, but it supplies power to a lot of people and it's something that we need in this time," Unmacht says.

But after watching the terrifying images coming out of Japan, local environmentalist Headrick says residents shouldn't be so complacent.

"The fact is man's best efforts failed in the face of the forces of nature," Headrick says.

He says all he can do is hope that those running and regulating the nuclear plant in his neighborhood are better prepared than those in Japan. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.