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An Accident Waiting to Happen Here

Nuclear power: Stark contrasts between nature's beauty and human hubris spoil the view at San Onofre.

October 10, 1999|LISA ALVAREZ | Lisa Alvarez is a professor of English at Irvine Valley College

It was an accident. That's what south Orange County cable viewers who called about a civil emergency announcement on Sept. 29 were told. Southern California Edison was conducting its annual test of San Onofre warning sirens, but this year activated the wrong message. It was not an accident, it was an accident.

In the late 1970s, nuclear power politicized me, a suburban high school student. The Three Mile Island accident occurred two days before my 18th birthday. A friend, a foreign exchange student from West Germany, invited me to my first anti-nuke demonstration.

Scared, I didn't go. Later, I got scared of what would happen if I didn't get involved. So, years before I moved to Orange County, I joined protesters at the gates of San Onofre. My brother-in-law worked there. He'd kid me. "What do you want to do," he'd say, "put me out of work?"

Later, after I moved here, I accompanied my husband and a friend to Trestles, the surfing spot. They surfed while I stalked a great blue heron picking its way along the shore. My binoculars forced me to focus on the bird's lean silhouette. Finally, when the heron ascended, folding its neck and head together, spreading its broad wings, I followed its flight, pointing my sights inland. The twin gray domes of San Onofre filled the binoculars.

I was genuinely startled to find where I'd wandered. I'd never seen it from this perspective, nestled between bluffs, snug against the beach, sipping the ocean waters. I snapped a photo: heron, nuke, both reflected in the glossy mirror of sea. I turned and left, unsettled at where my walk had led me.

Once I imagined the anti-nuclear movement would accomplish more. I thought facilities like San Onofre would be decommissioned. Who would risk so much? Now I understand that people will bargain with fate and science and say it's worth it--cheap, convenient energy, jobs. Worth the risk, they need to believe.

News broke in April of 1986 about an accident at Russia's Chernobyl nuclear plant. I worked as a teaching assistant at an elementary school then. Students had questions, as always. Sometimes about their work, often not. I was learning that so much of teaching is answering questions. Ricky, one student, asked, what is a meltdown? The teacher and I exchanged looks. She answered, said something about a very hot fire. How will they put it out? asked Ricky. No one knew, but that's hardly the answer you give an 8-year-old boy.

Risk is part of life, but there are risks acceptable and unacceptable. Particularly unacceptable is risking the unknown, the unmeasurable, the uncontainable. But perhaps one human error we can avoid is increasing our risks. The nuclear industry offers unacceptable risk. I learned that lesson as a teenager in public and private moments when I weighed present desires against future needs, like herons and rain. I learned to say no because I understood my future, our future, was worth more.


Ken Khachigian has the week off. His bimonthly Sunday column will return Oct. 24.

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