GETTING NUCLEAR: San Onofre Power Plant Crackdown

Last week, Southern California had a tremendous environmental victory. With an 8-2 vote by the California Coastal Commission opposing the proposed Toll Road, Trestles and the surrounding area received a marvelous new breath of life. A day later, along with countless other happy souls, I received an email from The Surfrider Foundation thanking everyone for their support, and informing those who may have missed the news. One sentence, however, rings incredibly true, and quite relevant considering recent events: "… while the Coastal Commission victory carries huge clout–we must not rest on our laurels!" The author, Stefanie Sekich could not be more right.

Just south of Trestles lies San Onofre, with the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) hurtling forth from terra firma. On January 14th, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a press release detailing safety lapses at the plant that were nerve wracking to say the least. Among them lay the culprit which finally rousted the NRC to demand changes. As described in their press release, "an investigation by the NRC determined that a fire protection specialist provided inaccurate information about hourly fire watch rounds they were supposed to make while working the midnight shift at the plant from April 2001 to December 2006." For five years this employee went unchecked, not to mention the worker's responsibilities.

Which begs the question, How could such a gross refusal of responsibility go unnoticed for so long? San Clemente resident, and owner of local surf shop Icons of Surf, Ken Mockett has his opinion, "I see a disregard for ethics which is a problem that goes from personal to business," says Mockett. "These employees lacked the ethics to do what they were entrusted to do. They decided they knew better than those who set the standard and therefore shucked their responsibility."

Mockett has a vested interest in San Onofre. Not only does he live near the plant and surf near the plant, but the boards sold at Icons are also favorites of San O. regulars. From economic to recreational investment in the area, Mockett believes the problem speaks more than simply about the individual employees indicted.

"I would imagine it is a trend of the company they work for. Individual ethics usually are a representation of the company's corporate ethics. The problem starts at the top and filters downward."

Mockett raises a good point. As stated by NRC Region IV Administrator Elmo E. Collins, "The NRC depends on a good faith effort of nuclear power plant workers to follow regulations." While there were other safety precautions in place within the plant to prevent fires, such negligence should not even occur in the first place. The fact that it did occur, and continued to do so for five years unnoticed, speaks volumes about the employee's superiors. The technology and components utilized in the plant are far too powerful and dangerous for such cavalier action by the SONGS employees. This instance suggests there needs to be more regulation than a "good faith effort."

When contacted, Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the NRC, commented that "It is important, but as we point out in the press release, there are several other fire protection systems and methods in place, such that the over-all ability of the plant to deal with the fire is not affected. But we certainly do take it very seriously, that any employee would put down a false record of any activity at a plant." While this is reassuring to hear, such Monday morning quarterbacking should not be necessary.

With the potential for disaster that is inherent with a nuclear power plant, it is evident that a simple "good faith" approach to ensure the safety of the plant, the people, and the environment is not sufficient. While the fire check situation is what finally prompted the NRC to investigate, it is clear that such irresponsible behavior is not atypical. Within the past year the NRC found that, "A radiographer deliberately failed to adhere to the terms of a radiation work permit; a technician willfully failed to control the work activities of an unqualified technician performing work on safety-related equipment, which rendered a safety system inoperable for a short time; and two willful violations have been documented for security-related matters." Quite an abysmal report card for the old refrigerator.

From possible budget cut beach closures, to watershed crusades, and into nuclear plant regulation, the scope of Sekich's words becomes remarkably apparent. Southern California beaches continue to have their work cut out for them. According to Burnell, the NRC will be there to help, "NRC's mission is to ensure that every commercial nuclear power plant, and any facility that uses nuclear materials on the civilian side of things is doing so safely and in a way that is not going to affect the public or the environment." Riding on the coattails of the Trestles victory, it cannot be argued that surfers are lazy, uninformed, or unmotivated. It's taken some pretty serious events, but it can safely be said that the Spicoli persona has been put to bed. We got one nice snap off the Trestles victory, now it's time to rebound and pump like hell to keep this wave going.

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