From the back deck of their home high in the San Clemente hills, the neighbors look out to a hundred miles of the Pacific and some of the most wondrous sunsets in California. On this evening, with a soft breeze blowing in from the west, they sit peacefully under the seductive twilight spectacle. To the south a few miles they can see the last of the sunlight gleaming off the big containment domes of the power plant down on the beach.
In a special way, the people of San Clemente are a microcosm of today's American psyche, reflecting the complacency and occasional concern about the nation's problems. When it comes to the question of a nuclear power plant in their own backyard, their reaction is almost a mirror image of the country's: a willingness to accept the remote possibility of a major disaster.
San Clemente was blessed with this dilemma in the late 1960s when a giant utility put up the generating plant just three miles south of the city to provide electricity to millions of Californians. It is doing that very effectively. Three nuclear reactors are now being used to generate that electricity at the largest nuclear power plant west of the Mississippi and, potentially, the most dangerous.
The plant represents one of the most terrifying threats imaginable, short of a full-scale war, yet people seldom speak of that. They live in the "Basic Emergency Planning Zone," with its questionable promise of a sure and hasty evacuation of everyone within a 10-mile radius. The people hereabouts depend on that, even as they depend on assurances that it won't ever be needed.
The plant's primary owner, Southern California Edison, is regarded by Californias with the same respect as home, Mother and apple pie, because it has been around practically forever, lighting our cities and homes and always providing a strong sense of security. Even the power plant's name suggests a spirit of cordiality--SONGS, the acronym for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. So it would seem bizarre to question the utility's motives or its concern for the public's safety. And it is a very generous employer.
Despite the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the consensus here is that this facility is safe, as safe at least as our current technology can make it. One of the justifications for our inattention to grim scenarios involving radioactive clouds is that this country has yet to experience injuries or deaths caused by nuclear accidents on a horrendous scale. We see automobiles, handguns and drugs as representing the real and quantified threats to our lives. Undeniably, the chances of being killed in a car are 10,000 times greater than in a nuclear accident.
Risk assessments and accident probabilities at nuclear plants have been studied and researched for 40 years now. There are enormous inherent risks in operating a nuclear reactor, and some we're not even aware of yet. Even with the unprecedented safety precautions, it can never be made completely safe, any more than a coal-fired power plant or an automobile factory can. That, of course, is the very real and monumental difference between nuclear power and other industries: Their accidents don't carry the devastating consequences of nuclear radiation to the public outside the fence.
If the threat of a catastrophic core meltdown is viewed by local residents as an improbable situation, they are right. They refuse to be scared, listening only to the comforting words from the people in authority. Otherwise, what could they do? Certainly they cannot fight the government or the huge industrial complex bringing them their electricity. And the most determined, best organized anti-nuke advocates up north couldn't even stop a new plant when it was still on the drawing-board. Thus, the neighbors of San Onofre have created a pervasive climate of contentment here, whether real or imagined.
Tell them that we are in the most active seismic area in the country and that a very treacherous earthquake fault lies just four miles from those three reactors at SONGS. You'll find that they are all accustomed to quakes and have no fear of the big one hitting us. And we know the reactor buildings are built to withstand a magnitude 7 temblor.
What will it take to arouse them? I have told some people that a single reactor meltdown at SONGS could cause 130,000 early deaths, 300,000 latent cancers, and the evacuation of 10 million people living within 50 miles of the plant, which includes most of Los Angeles. They listen, but they cannot allow themselves to consciously accept such grim prophecies. They choose not to live in fear.
I am bothered with the knowledge that malfunctions of machines, pipes, valves, and people will continue at nuclear plants. The risk probabilities may be very low, but it is all in the hands of imperfect humans. Yet the San Onofre facility seems to be humming along quite nicely despite its past problems.
I still live here, so who am I to accuse others of apathy when pieces of my own ostrich mentality hang on somehow? And as this inscrutable dilemma continues to defy us with no apparent solution, maybe there is some comfort in feeling that the people are doing a lot more praying here than we first realized. It might be the only option they can live with.
Take a final look at the neighbors on their back deck. Though contrived, it is not a totally improbable scenario.
"That isn't smoke is it? It's blowing this way," she says.
Her husband reassures her. "No, dear, that's just the normal steam. Funny though that it's coming up from the south."
She gets off her chair to go into the house, then suddenly turns around. "What's that? Do you hear it?"
A low, very faint rumbling noise moves up the hill. The kitchen dishes begin to rattle. Then the deck starts to sway. But surely those big cement domes down there will hold together.