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No-Nuke Activist Faces Radioactive Facts

March 18, 2001|DANA PARSONS

It's a scary phrase from what seems like a bygone era, but which suddenly is a lot more current.

Nuclear waste dump site.

Those of us not well-versed in nuclear-power lingo tend to recoil when hearing the words. Not in my backyard? How about not in my state? How about the dark side of the moon?

With that in mind, the saving grace down through the years had always been that we tended to associate nuclear dump sites with places like New Jersey or remote, barren locales.

Uh, would you believe the beaches of Southern California?

The California Coastal Commission, whose objections just last week prompted a developer to scrap a San Clemente project, turned around and said yes to building a storage facility at the 34-year-old San Onofre power plant south of the city.

The two projects are unrelated, but one can only chuckle at their juxtaposition in the same week.

No to houses and commercial development; yes to nuclear waste.

Commission members were quick to say their jurisdiction in such matters is limited but that the panel needed to sign off on the storage facility requested by Southern California Edison, which operates the plant.

Edison officials said they need the facility for long-term storage of the plant's used-up uranium rods--something the federal government once promised but never delivered. San Onofre plant officials say the storage facility will be safer than the temporary cooling ponds now in use.

As has always been the case with nuclear power, we laypeople have to take their word for that.

That was much easier to do before Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. Those power-plant disasters helped shape a generation's aversion to nuclear power and essentially put a stop to building more nuclear facilities in the United States.

That's the way it should stay, says longtime anti-nuclear activist Marion Pack of Norco.

And yet, she knows that doesn't quite address the matter at hand: what to do with the radioactive fuel rods.

I can hear Pack's frustration crackling over the phone line as she talks about that.

"I'm not saying cooling ponds are the best place for them," she says. "There's no good place for them, and I find it unconscionable that we continue to generate more of it when we don't know what we're going to do with what we have."

I'm going to assume nuclear-waste storage is not an area of expertise for Coastal Commission members. Pack knows that too, which only makes her more frustrated.

The commission's action is simply a reaction to the fact that the federal government hasn't created any long-term storage facilities for nuclear waste.

So Pack finds herself in an odd position. It's not that the new storage facility is horrible. After all, expended rods can't cool off in the ocean.

"They have to stay somewhere," she says. "I don't want to advocate for their hasty removal, either. It's the dilemma we've created for ourselves when we decided to use nuclear fuel. There is no good way to store spent nuclear fuel rods."

For those of us who thought these discussions were a thing of the past, we may have to bone up on our nuclear-power jargon because the state's electricity crisis has people talking nuclear again.

Advocates convinced of its safety know they'll have to do a better job this time around selling it to the public.

Pack fears the state's crisis might create a more receptive audience.

"We've had a nuclear waste site on the beach ever since San Onofre went into operation, in reality," she says, a reference to the temporary cooling ponds.

But to her way of thinking, when you play with nuclear, you're playing with fire.

"I think people should be a little more aware," she says, "of what's sitting down at the southern border of the county."

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to

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