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San Onofre closure generates mixed feelings

There's relief, sadness, hope and lingering concerns among the San Clemente neighbors of the nuclear power plant.

June 23, 2013|By Abby Sewell and Anh Do, Los Angeles Times
  • The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station hunkers in the background as surfers go about their sport at Lower Trestles in San Clemente.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station hunkers in the background as… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

The picturesque beach city of San Clemente has hummed along for decades just up the highway from the ominous concrete domes of the San Onofre nuclear plant.

To residents, there were always reminders of their neighbor's presence — the quarterly emergency siren tests and the potassium iodide tablets that local agencies kept on hand to distribute to residents in the 10-mile emergency planning zone around the plant.

But for the most part, the 63,000 residents of this city on the southern edge of Orange County — known for its proximity to legendary surf spots and the rolling coastal hills of Camp Pendleton Marine base — went about their daily lives for years with little thought of the nuclear generating station four miles down Interstate 5.

The tide began to shift in 2011, however, when a tsunami inundated Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, leading to equipment failures and meltdowns at three reactors and raising new concerns about the safety of Southern California's own coastal nuclear plant. A year later, a tube in one of San Onofre's newly installed steam generators leaked a small amount of radioactive steam, setting off a chain of events that led to Edison's announcement this month that the facility will be retired for good.

Residents in San Clemente greeted the news with a mix of feelings — relief; sadness that the jobs of hundreds of utility workers who lived, shopped, and ate and drank in town will be lost; and worry about replacing the plant's energy and about the nuclear waste that will remain at the site.

"Every year, I have to sign a waiver so if something happened or leaked while the kids are in school, we give the school permission to give them iodine tablets," said Alicia Lopez, a mother of three who waits tables at the OC Tavern, a restaurant and sports bar in San Clemente that is popular with San Onofre workers.

"That's crazy," Lopez said. "I had to ask my pediatrician if I should do it. I'll be glad when we don't have to deal with that."

But Lopez's relief was tempered with regret at the thought that many of her longtime customers will lose their jobs as the plant is mothballed.

Over the next year, the plant's workforce will be cut from 1,500 to about 400 — who will be charged with securing the plant during the potentially decades-long decommissioning process.

Daniel Dominguez, business manager for Utility Workers Union of America Local 246, said the employees were disappointed but will now focus on keeping the facility safely shut down:

"We're all professionals," he said. "It's unfortunate the plant was shut down, but it is what it is."

A plant employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said many workers hadn't expected a decision on the plant's fate until later in the year and were caught off guard. The plant's workforce has already been cut by about 700 in the last year.

"We just went through a very painful reduction in force," he said. "Some people just barely made it through, and they celebrated."

The employee said he expected that many of his colleagues would leave Southern California to find jobs elsewhere with comparable pay. With San Onofre gone, the two nearest nuclear plants are Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo and Palo Verde in Arizona.

San Clemente officials said about 400 of the plant's employees live in the city. On top of that, contractors stay for months at a time during the plant's regular refueling outages and other projects — including the steam generator replacement that ultimately led to the plant's permanent closure.

Eric Moser, general manager at the Best Western Casablanca Inn in San Clemente, said San Onofre contractors made up about 3% to 4% of the hotel's overall business; but during the winter months when the plant generally scheduled its refueling outages, they could account for 30% or more.

Some suggested that the plant's closure could boost property values. Median home prices in San Clemente are about half that of nearby Laguna Beach, according to real estate firm DataQuick, and lower too than in neighboring Dana Point, which also is within San Onofre's emergency planning zone but a few miles farther from the plant.

"We have disclosures we have to give to people. Sometimes it's an issue, sometimes it's not," said Debbie Ferrari, who owns a local real estate business and has lived in San Clemente since 1981. She said it is difficult to determine whether the plant has been a factor in real estate decisions.

"We might have more people willing to come here now that it's closed, and willing to pay a higher price."

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