Inside the Encina Power Plant in Carlsbad, bicycles are casually parked everywhere.
The bikes are essential for employees to get around the plant: It is a block wide and a block-and-a-half long.
The whine of fans and churning turbines in the plant combine with the hum of electric monitoring equipment, heat blasting furnaces and clanging metal. Most workers are dressed casually, in blue jeans and running shoes.
A few miles up the coast, at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, there are no bicycles.
Concrete encased nuclear reactors are sited in an imposing jumble of hoses, ladders, security checkpoints, green-glass guard towers, barbed wire loops, catwalks and cranes. There are occasional glimpses of employees wearing protective jumpsuits and signs warning of radioactive material.
Tremendous amounts of power are produced at the two North County power plants, each planted on the ocean's edge. One is fueled by the burning of natural gas and oil; the other by controlled nuclear reaction.
The plants give North County what are probably its most dramatic man-made landmarks: the cherry-light topped domes at San Onofre and the box-shaped, steel-facaded plant and 380-foot-tall tower at Carlsbad.
The Encina plant is owned by San Diego Gas & Electric; the San Onofre plant is owned primarily by Southern California Edison, but in part by SDG&E.
Homer Simpson, the bumbling nuclear plant worker from the television show "The Simpsons" is not a popular figure among the 2,300 men and women who work at San Onofre.
In one episode, set in a San Onofre-like plant, Homer drives a forklift into barrels of radioactive materials.
"The writers for the Simpsons were here for a tour a couple of months back. . . .They came here for a general impression," said engineer Eugene Cramer.
Cramer pointed to a nearby door and said in dismay, "They made it look as if the doors at the plant were rolled-up garage doors." The door in question appeared, in fact, to be a formidable combination of bank vault and submarine hatch.
"What I would have liked is for them to have written in a serious way about the serious job people do here for a serious purpose," Cramer said.
David Barron of Southern California Edison's corporate communications department wasn't amused by the portrayal in the Simpsons either. "You know, there's a poster of that guy hanging around here--with a bar across it. It says 'No Homers Here.' "
When nuclear power station workers aren't warding off questions like "Do you glow in the dark?" or "Do you get your tan indoors?" they battle other misperceptions.
"People think of nuclear power as a mysterious, freaky, unusual thing," said Cramer. "Actually it uses appropriate technology, proven by time and physical principles as old as the hills."
Although San Onofre does not have the ominous reputation associated with some nuclear power plants--like Three Mile Island, Diablo Canyon, Seabrook or Shoreham--it is not free of controversy.
Last year, a 15-year, $46 million study of the station's environmental impact was completed. It cited a 200-acre reduction in the size of the San Onofre kelp bed as among the adverse effects of the plant. After its release, the study was criticized by one of its three authors as inadequate. Biologist Rimmon Fay disagrees with the conclusion that nearby sea life is not being significantly harmed.
The biggest recognized danger from a nuclear reactor is uncontrolled release of radioactive material. Nuclear power plants are layered with security and safety precautions designed to prevent that from happening.
Once a year, a full-scale emergency drill is staged at San Onofre. About a dozen groups--ranging from the county emergency preparedness office to the Red Cross--participate in the drill. There is a 12-mile radius around the plant designated as an emergency planning zone. Some 900 Marine housing units fall within the zone.
Inside the gas-fired Encina plant, the 10-story furnace and boiler can be glimpsed through small portholes. Violet and yellow flames seem to press against the medallion-shaped windows. The fire is burning at temperatures of 2,500 degrees.
Those flames are fueled most of the time by natural gas from Oklahoma or Texas, said John Pruyn, an executive at San Diego Gas & Electric. About 7% of the fuel is low-sulfur fuel oil from Indonesia or Alaska. Natural gas arrives at the plant via underground pipelines. The oil is delivered by tankers that anchor off Carlsbad.
In the 36 years the plant has been operating, only the smallest spillage has occurred, according to Pruyn.
Once a year, the plant stages an oil containment exercise to prepare it to deal with an oil spill, should one occur.
A staff of about 125--engineers, mechanics, maintenance workers, and control room technicians--keeps the Encina plant in operation 24 hours a day.
The power plant, switchyard and other property covers about 800 acres, including the adjacent lagoon. Encina uses water from the Agua Hedionda Lagoon to cool its interior pipes.