When marine biologist Rimmon Fay donned scuba gear and first dived into the waters near San Onofre a decade ago, he found a rich blend of ocean flora and fauna.
It was like a picture postcard of a thriving undersea world. Dense forests of kelp swayed in the currents. Crowds of fish darted about. A potpourri of clams and other mollusks lay encrusted like gems on the bottom.
But today, Fay says, that same patch of ocean floor is a virtual undersea desert. Fay blames the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
Cooling water discharged into the sea from the plant's two big new reactors, first fired up in 1983 and 1984, has spread a thick layer of silt over a 33-acre section of ocean bottom once dominated by a flourishing kelp bed, Fay says. In effect, the ecological balance of that submarine world has been turned topsy-turvy, he maintains.
More Benign Views
But scientific opinion on the question is far from unanimous. Other marine biologists survey the same undersea area and reach far more benign conclusions about the impact of the plant. They say there is no proof that changes in the marine environment are associated with the plant's operations, arguing that many of the effects may simply be the result of Mother Nature.
"Basically, it's not a disaster out there," said Byron Mechalas, manager of environmental research for Southern California Edison Co., owner of the plant. "There are changes, there are things happening out there, but I would say they aren't very severe. Most of the effects are lost in the noise of the natural environment out there."
This clash represents the latest chapter in a decade-long scientific struggle over the question of what effect the power plant is having on undersea life.
The debate will ultimately land in the lap of the California Coastal Commission during 1988. Late in the year, the commission will consider the results of a study by a special three-member committee that has monitored the ocean environment off San Onofre since Edison was granted a permit for the two new reactors in 1974.
Fay, who operates Pacific Bio-Marine Laboratories in Inglewood, is the environmentalist representative on the committee. Mechalas represents the utility. The third panel member, a representative of the commission, is UC Santa Barbara biologist William Murdoch, who in reports to the commission generally sides with Mechalas.
The stakes in this study are great. If the scientific committee concludes that the San Onfore nuclear power plant has harmed the near-shore waters, the commission could order the utility to take costly measures to compensate for any ecological damage, including modifications to the cooling system.
Coastal Commission officials concede that the issue will be heated.
"There's no doubt we're going to have a very challenging problem," said Susan Hansch, manager of the commission's energy and ocean resources unit. "We hope that the data will be such that, with an honest interpretation, we will know which direction we should go with possible mitigation measures."
So far, Fay has found little common ground with other committee members.
Fay contends that his counterparts on the panel, dubbed the Marine Review Committee, have been "derelict" in their duty to report the environmental problems he discerns off San Onofre.
Murdoch, the Univeristy of California, Santa Barbara, biologist, was unavailable for comment due to a family emergency. But Edison's representative, Mechalas, bristled at Fay's allegations.
"I just don't understand some of Dr. Fay's claims," Mechalas said. "We're not supposed to be lawyers. We're supposed to study the environment as scientists and report what we find to the Coastal Commission. And that's what we're doing.
"I think Fay is just an old-time environmental type and he doesn't like nuclear power plants," Mechalas concluded. "He feels there ought to be a disaster out there and he just can't understand why we're not finding it."
Such sparring is not surprising given the genesis of the Marine Review Committee.
The panel sprang from the tumultuous fight over Edison's efforts to get permission for the two new 1,100-megawatt reactors during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. Although Edison had federal approval, the California Coastal Commission denied the plant an operating permit until early 1974. And then the commission granted approval with several stringent conditions.
Key among them was the creation of the Marine Review Committee, which was given a charter to study the marine environment and the plant's impact upon it. Although funded by Edison, the group was composed of representatives of the utility, the commission and environmentalists.
In 1979, the committee declared after reviewing the design of the plant's cooling system--which draws in ocean water near shore through a mammoth pipe and then dumps it back into deeper water--that no environmental harm was anticipated. The Coastal Commission subsequently allowed construction at San Onofre to go forward.
In the years since the plant went into operation, however, the scientists have noticed several ecological anomalies in the ocean off San Onofre.
Although some species of marine life have flourished, others have showed marked declines, according to the Marine Review Committee's most recent report, released by the Coastal Commission in May.
The most pronounced change came with the discovery in the fall of 1985 of a gooey, wave-resistant layer of sediment in 35 feet to 50 feet of water downstream from the power plant's water discharge lines. With a thickness of about three feet, the sediment layer has smothered marine life in the area and has killed much of the kelp.
Although the committee has yet to take a formal position on the cause of the sediment, Fay contends that the stuff was probably drawn up by the cooling system, which circulates about 2 million gallons of seawater through the plant each minute, and dumped into deeper water, where it settled like cement on the bottom.
Fay says about 80% of the kelp bed has disappeared, apparently because of the sediment layer and the shadowing effect of the particles in the seawater.
To him, this is a profound ecological tragedy. Kelp beds are among the richest resources of the ocean. Often compared in complexity to a terrestrial rain forest, these groves of seaweed serve as a habitat and a food source for numerous species.
"It's gone," Fay said. "Essentially, all of it has been impacted by this accumulation of sand. And that, to me, amounts to the creation of a desert."
Edison's Mechalas, however, argues that the kelp has actually grown in recent years, with new sections blossoming on the perimeter of the older bed.
"Right now, the kelp bed is probably as big or bigger than it has been in the last eight years," Mechalas said. "There's actually new kelp to the north of the diffuser pipes, and there's even some growth on the pipes themselves."
Effect on Sand Crabs
Another issue dividing the scientists has been the power plant's effect on sand crabs. The tiny creatures are important as a sort of ecological signpost, revealing clues to the overall health of other marine creatures.
Studies have indicated that crabs on beaches near the facility are smaller and less fertile than those on more distant spots. The Marine Review Committee has launched an investigation to determine if toxic metals and radioactive particles are a cause or if the crabs are historically less productive due to factors such as the size of the beach sand and the availability of food.
While Mechalas contends that "the environment off San Onofre just happens to be lousy for sand crabs," Fay suggests that the plant may play a role. Moreover, Fay argues, the review committee has given "only token" consideration to effects on the ocean of radiation and metals produced by the plant.
The review panel, Fay grouses, "has concluded that there are inadequate amounts of radiation being released to cause demonstrative biological affects. . . . I don't think we've studied that sufficiently."
Mechalas counters that radiation is a federal issue best handled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency licensed to monitor power plants in the United States. Nevertheless, he said, studies at San Onofre have indicated that the plant is "well and far below operating specifications for radiation releases."
Fay has also blasted Edison for its fish-return system. Predators "line up at the discharge port and pick off the fish as they are forced out into the ocean," Fay says.
69% of Capacity
The biologist also questions the validity of the studies since the two new reactors have been operating at 69% of capacity, a level below future expectations.
Mechalas and Murdoch, making their views known in a report, argue that the operating level of the plant's coolant system is a far more important factor. Thus far, San Onofre has averaged 75% of its pumping capacity, which is about the level expected over the long run.
Fay counters that the operating level of the nuclear reactors is, indeed, a vital piece to the scientific puzzle because of the potential compounding effects of additional radioactive particles or toxic metals produced while the plant is yielding more electricity.
"If we're seeing a loss of marine life at the lower levels of operation, the loss could be greater at higher levels," he said.
During the coming weeks, the Marine Review Committee is expected to release a report that may clarify some outstanding issues and point toward measures Edison may be asked to take to compensate for any environmental damage.
As usual, Fay and Mechalas are on opposite extremes on the issue of environmental compensation. Mechalas contends that no measures are needed. Fay, meanwhile, favors such multimillion-dollar solutions as the construction of cooling towers.
Edison Influence Charged
Don May, Southern California representative of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said the political makeup of the Coastal Commission makes it unlikely that big-ticket items such cooling towers "are in the cards."
Moreover, he said, the information provided by the Marine Review Committee's majority, Mechalas and Murdoch, will not help. The results of the study have been swayed by Edison, he charged.
Mechalas rejected those allegations. Although the firm holds the purse strings to the study, which has cost about $40 million over the last 13 years, the funds are deposited in a trust from which the Marine Review Committee draws, he said. Moreover, the panel has its own staff and each of the studies will be subject to comprehensive reviews by a pool of peers in the scientific community, Mechalas said.
"There's just zero influence from Edison other than what I choose to exert, and I'm pretty independent," Mechalas said.
Whatever the outcome, a court battle probably will result, May said. Environmentalists are not going to let the plant continue operating in its current status, he said.
"They've limited the options for future generations along that part of the coast," May said. "We're spending our children's ecological inheritance."