Fallout: From Fukushima to San Onofre

The San Onofre nuclear power plant in San Diego County, California

The radiation that blew out of the Fukushima nuclear-power plants, particles of which the jet stream swept across the Pacific, barely left a trace on sensitive monitoring equipment in California. Yet its minute presence also registered loud and clear: this is one planet.

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A much louder declaration about the interconnectedness of things had come days earlier when seismological instruments everywhere lit up a split second after the Tōhoku temblor's first violent jolt. The tsunami it unleashed went global, too. Within 30 minutes of the initial shockwave, its western surge had slammed into Japan, and by the next day its eastern wave had raced across the Pacific, crashing into Crescent City and Santa Cruz harbors, where it splintered wharves and swamped boats; soon, it was rippling the Atlantic.

That so much of this destructive energy was captured live, transmitted in real time through media new and old, just underscores how bound up we are with people we do not know and landscapes with which we are unfamiliar. Terra Incognita is no more.

Yet even those places with which we are familiar can be unrecognizable, slipping off the screen of our memory. That thought came as I sat transfixed in front of the TV, watching endless hours of footage streaming in from a battered Japan, now reeling before three tragedies, the most ominous of which are the breached nuclear-power facilities.

The earthquake's damage I could assimilate--the recent devastation in Haiti and New Zealand had laid the groundwork for interpreting the wrenching loss of life and the torqued terrain that came with a seismic blast. I had no sense for how to react to the news that subsequently leaked out about the Fukushima plant having been badly compromised, that it might meltdown.

It wasn't until CNN ran a segment on the significance of nuclear power in U. S. energy generation that I recalled what I never should have forgotten--that there are 104 such plants operating across this country; that the two major ones on the Texas Gulf Coast had supplied much of the electricity my family and I had consumed when we lived in San Antonio for a quarter century; and that this dependency is true as well in Southern California, for the region receives an estimated 2150 megawatts of power from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). My ability to watch the nuclear disaster unfold in distant Japan depended on the same uranium pellet-fired technology located on a beach in northern San Diego County, but 65 miles away.

Southern California Edison (SCE), San Onofre's majority owner, would prefer we not think about that propinquity or the parallels. No sooner had the four-unit Fukushima installation been rocked by the quake, its backup generators flooded by the 33-foot-high tsunami, and its cooling system knocked out than SCE issued a press release designed to assure its customers that no such earth-shattering damage could happen to San Onofre. Or at least it was "highly unlikely." As for a tsunami, this frightening prospect was discounted because a reinforced-concrete 25-foot wall protected the plant. Convinced, the next day every media outlet ran images of the great wall, a picture of solidity.

The situation may be more unstable than those photographs allow, according to a 2008 California Energy Commission report entitled "An Assessment of California's Nuclear Power Plants." It warns about the possibility of "blind thrust" faults beneath the facility; of the degree to which local fault zones and those in Los Angeles and San Diego are linked; and of nagging uncertainties about the "continuity, structure, and earthquake potential of a nearby offshore fault zone (the South Coast Offshore Fault Zone)." Because these concerns emerge out of seismologic and geologic findings that become available after SONGS was built, the commission concluded reasonably enough that the site "could experience larger and more frequent earthquakes than had been anticipated when the plant was designed."

It reevaluated, too, the original 1960s assessment that tsunamis posed little to no threat to this region. Although major earthquake-driven, cross-Pacific tsunamis like the Tōhoku may have a hard time navigating through the offshore islands and undersea borderland topography; and although there was a major tsunami in 1812 kicked up by a thrust fault in the Santa Barbara channel, scientists now understand that submarine landslides can also launch large tsunamis.They have uncovered geologic evidence indicating that such events have occurred, and could again, in the Channel Islands and along the San Pedro escarpment. Cautioned the Energy Commission: "even a moderate increase in the estimated maximum tsunami run‐up could raise significant concerns about the adequacy of the [San Onofre] seawall."

Anyone who watched repeatedly the churning speed and calving power of the Tōhoku tsunami, and its casual flicking aside of the most hardened infrastructure, can only hope that SCE now shares the commission's concerns. It didn't in 2008, when it indicated it wasn't planning "to reassess the tsunami hazard at SONGS and has not reassessed this hazard since the plant was designed."

None of this unsettling news will come as a surprise to those who in the 1970s and early 1980s tried to stop construction of San Onofre's second and third units (the first had been built in 1968, and drew little pubic reaction; it ceased operation in 1992). Like their peers who fought against nuclear-power plants in California at Bodega Bay (where they were successful) and Diablo Canyon (where they were not), opponents of the proposed expansion of the San Onofre complex challenged SCE's assurances of the site's geological stability, given that it is straddles the Christianitos fault.They also questioned its operational safety, which later gained greater credence in March 1979 after the Three Mile Island disaster. As well they routinely denounced SCE's rhetorical insistence that Californians had only one choice--to embrace nuclear power or brace themselves for economic collapse.

Protestors gained welcome support in 1973: that's when the recently formed California Coastal Commission (CCC) briefly stopped the permitting process at SONGS because, in the words of historian Ashley Haines, the new construction would "deface scenic cliffs, obstruct public access to the beach, and damage marine life." After winning some concessions from the utility, the CCC reversed itself but activists continued to file legal appeal after legal appeal. To woo the court of public opinion, each and every August thousands would show up at the site to draw a direct link between this particular nuclear-energy plant and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. For them, the peaceful atom was a deadly force.

Their arguments did not carry the day. But the issues that these demonstrators raised 30 years ago about San Onofre remain relevant, particularly now as we watch a shell-shocked Japan struggle to regain control of the Fukushima reactors. Remember, no technician at that still-smoking facility in the town of Okuma, no resident of Iwaki or Kesennuma or Natori or Sendai or Yuriage, had any idea what was about to befall them on Friday, March 11, 2011 at 05:46:22 UTC.

A heart beat later, the earth shook and their lives (and ours) changed forever.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user exquisitur. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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