Fear grows in O.C. cities near San Onofre nuclear plant

Concern over the safety of the San Onofre nuclear power plant is growing among Orange County cities closest to the facility, which has been shut down since January because of system failures.

Officials in nearby San Clemente and Laguna Beach — both within 20 miles of the San Onofre facility — have registered their fears after significant wear was found on hundreds of tubes carrying radioactive water inside the plant’s generators.

Residents in the Orange County beach towns for years have lived with the twin-domed nuclear plant as a backdrop. In San Clemente, which falls within the plant’s 10-mile evacuation zone, city-issued potassium iodide tablets and siren drills have become a fact of life.

But with scenes of the nuclear disaster in Japan fresh in people’s minds, the recent closure has raised consciousness about nuclear issues and prompted critics to double down on their disapproval.

Some city officials are now calling for the decommissioning of the San Onofre site. The plant’s license is set to expire in 2022.

“The plant should be shut down, period,” said Verna Rollinger, mayor pro tem in Laguna Beach. “I have never supported it, and I wish nuclear energy was safe because it’s a relatively clean energy source, but it’s also so dangerous that I don’t think we should be counting on that for our future energy needs.”

She added: “I think people are concerned, and for good reason.”

The mayor of San Clemente, Lori Donchak, wrote to federal officials asking that they demand a permanent disposal place for spent nuclear fuel, and others have asked that they consider expanding the evacuation zone beyond the current 10-mile radius.

Federal regulatory officials said the facility remains safe and the process to repair the damaged tubes is part of the effort to ensure those living nearby aren’t endangered.

“San Onofre is being operated safely — that’s the bottom line,” said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But now that the facility has been off-line for some time, with power still flowing to homes and businesses without interruption, some have asked why it needs to come back into service. “The question is,” Rollinger said, “how difficult would it be to go without it?”

Southern California Edison, which operates the San Onofre facility, said San Onofre is vital to providing electricity to a densely populated, high-consuming area like Southern California, with 20% of the region’s electricity coming from nuclear plants.

“San Onofre is critical to that grid stability,” said Jennifer Manfrey, a company spokeswoman, who added that the company is making up for the difference by purchasing power from different sources on the market — a solution that can’t continue indefinitely, particularly with the increase in consumption in the summer months. Other clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, aren’t enough to close the gap.

But Marion Pack, a political organizer who opposes the facility, said the price for that energy source remains too high. “When you have to have all these safety measures,” she said, “it says to me there is an inherent danger.”