The San Onofre nuclear power plant casts an ominous shadow over this stretch of classic Southern California coastline. Photo: Ellis

Tuesday, January 31 looked like any other weekday along the coastline of San Onofre. From the freeway, you could see black dots crowding the peak at Lowers and spreading north to Cottons. The parking lot at Old Mans, perpetually full, as old men and blue-collared workers fit a session into their workday. Down the trails at San O, longboarders and SUPers cruised in the shadow of the bluffs, with the busty outline of the nuclear power plant looming from the landscape above.

But on this Tuesday, a warning sensor detected a small leak of radiation released into the local atmosphere, triggered by a malfunction in the Unit 3 reactor, which potentially exposed hundreds of local surfers and beachgoers to nuclear radiation. The facility claims that they were acceptable levels, yet the only monitoring of radiation comes from inside the energy company itself. The incident led to the discovery of extensive damage to tubes carrying radioactive water within the facility and the eventual shutdown of the other reactor two days later. The story, however, has made few headlines. Other than a brief mention on the local news and some online coverage, it has been developing under the radar for more than a month now. Today, both reactors are still offline, and the facility remains under inspection.

On March 11, it will be one year since an earthquake off the east coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that devastated the country and caused the tragic nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. The nuclear power plant in Fukushima was constructed on a tsunami-prone coast, close to range of fault lines in the Pacific Ocean. It was not built and maintained to survive a large-scale disaster, and as a result a 20 km radius of Japanese coastline has now become a nuclear dead-zone. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) sits just south of San Clemente, adjacent to the world-class waves of Trestles. More than 8 million people live within 50 miles of the plant, which sits in proximity to some of the more active fault lines in the world.

The parallels between San Onofre and Fukushima are harrowing. With the ominous nature of this incident at San O, which isn't isolated and is still not resolved, the perils and consequences of nuclear energy in Southern California have never been more relevant. So why don't surfers care?

A 2005 shot of Brendan Margison surfing in front of the now-damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Photo: Aichner

Gary Headrick is the head of San Clemente Green, a grassroots environmental group that has put decommissioning the nuclear plant atop their priority list. Headrick used to be as big a believer in nuclear energy as anyone else. But when the disaster at Fukushima occurred, and the glaring faults in nuclear regulation were revealed, he committed himself to putting nuclear power in the rearview mirror. He has myriad reasons why SONGS should be shut down permanently, and insists that they all are relevant to surfers.

He cites one particular testimony—from an email he was CC'd on in August 2011—as damning evidence. James Chambers worked as a licensed nuclear reactor operator at SONGS for more than 25 years before taking medical leave in 2010. Last year, Chambers wrote an email to the California Energy Commission outlining the issues that plague the nuclear power plant and detailing the unsafe environment that has been created. In his email, Chambers states, "SONGS has become quite notorious in the nuclear industry for being an egregious outlier in all the wrong areas of plant performance and industrial safety." Chambers writes about how the plant has an INPO 4 rating on a 1-4 scale, the worst rating a nuclear facility can receive, and that it maintains an environment where the operators of the plant are afraid to raise safety concerns, for fear of retaliation. He calls for the shutdown of both reactors, saying that the barriers to prevent a catastrophic nuclear event are compromised and cannot be reestablished under current management.

The Newport-Inglewood Fault, which runs parallel to the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, most recently ruptured in 1933, creating a Magnitude 6.4 earthquake that caused extensive damage to Long Beach and surrounding areas. The California Geological Survey estimates it to be capable of a Magnitude 7.4 quake, which on the Richter scale is four times greater than the magnitude of 7.0 that the SONGS facility was built to withstand. Were a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami of that strength to hit the area, the potential nuclear meltdown would call for an evacuation of the 8.4 million people who live within a 50-mile radius of the plant. The release of radioactive materials would create levels of radiation that would forever condemn the Trestles area to a nuclear dead-zone, a coastal Chernobyl.

The red lines are the known faults in Southern California, and the yellow circle represents the 50 mile radius, with a population of 8.4 million, that would need to be evacuated in the event of a meltdown. Graphic from San Clemente Green.

Another claim by Headrick is that SONGS' nuclear power is inefficient, and that it accounts for less than 10 percent of energy use in the state. "In all of California, we have two power plants, and they represent 14 percent of our energy. The state has a surplus of energy." According to the California Independent System Operator, the shutdown of reactors at the San O plant has had no impact on wholesale energy prices, which begs the question as to whether the supposed demand for nuclear energy is an illusion in the first place.

The ever-emphatic Kyle Thiermann, who just released a short exposé on fighting the construction of a nuclear power plant near J-Bay in South Africa, sees the issue at SONGS as a pressing issue in our own backyard. "The locals in J-Bay are organized, they are pissed, and they are going to stop the plant," Thiermann says. "Apparently, the nuclear industry has a fetish with building plants near world-class waves. Getting to a world where we power our communities on clean energy is possible and it will happen within our lifetime. I believe the only way we're going to get there is if we all get involved in our own unique way."

The crowd of stakeholders at Lowers should have a vested interest in the nuclear silos up the hill. Photo: Ellis

Headrick is frustrated with the inability for this issue to gain traction locally, particularly with surfers. "We keep running into problems with surfing organizations that are reluctant to stand with us on this issue. I don't understand it. They put so much energy into keeping plastic bags banned, and here we have this nuclear threat everyone seems to want to ignore." The Surfrider Foundation, which is headquartered in San Clemente, told SURFER that they have no position on SONGS, and no position on nuclear power in general.

"There's nothing that could threaten the surf more than the nuclear power plant right there," adds Headrick. "The fact that we could have a 12-mile 'no-go' zone— that's every good surf spot around."

It may be that there isn't enough awareness of this issue, that it's battling for priority with a dozen others, or that the environmental fatigue of protecting the ocean is wearing thin the surfer green-corps. But somewhere in the fine print of being a surfer there must be a clause, that when one dedicates his or her life to pursuing waves, they are obliged to protect them as well. As we near this one-year anniversary of the Fukushima meltdown, it'd be naive of the local community to not heed the warning of these ill-timed issues at SONGS. Could they be foreboding reminders of the recipe for nuclear disaster brewing in San Onofre? "How many more warnings can we expect?" asks Headrick. "It's a tragedy waiting to happen."

To learn more and get involved:

Decommission San Onofre
San Clemente Green
Surfing for Change