Out for her morning stroll with her dog in San Clemente a few weeks ago, Barbara Fox panicked when she spotted a plane circling the twin domes of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She rushed home to report the sighting and find out what was going on.
Fox was bounced between the Sheriff's
Department, the CHP and the Federal Aviation Administration before she
finally got some news she never expected: The no-fly zone placed over the
power plant after the Sept. 11 terror attacks was no longer in
"They told me it was probably
just a student pilot--don't worry about it," Fox said. Don't worry about
it? Fox and her neighbors who live in the shadow of San Onofre are now
more concerned than ever.
Living next to a nuclear power plant has
always brought its share of apprehensions. But in the wake of Sept. 11,
residents have become acutely aware that they live next door to what the
U.S. government acknowledges is a potential target for
Now, the buzz of a plane flying overhead takes on new
Some residents are mounting a campaign to improve what
they consider lax security in and around the plant. They want more armed
guards posted, a ban on international flights within 50 miles of San
Onofre and the stationing of Marines in the area.
Aside from an
airstrike, one of the residents' biggest worries is access to the plant
from nearby San Onofre State Beach, which shares a parking lot with plant
Plant officials insist security is more than adequate,
and the Nuclear Regulator Commission said San Onofre is
"They have a strong security program. They have not
had any significant issues identified there," said Gail Good, who oversees
security inspections at 14 nuclear sites in the western United States for
The pair of curvy, concrete domes of San Onofre sit
about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Built and licensed in the
early 1980s, San Onofre was a source of angst long before Sept.
The discovery of seismic faults beneath the plant, and a recent
proposal to store an estimated 62,500 gallons of nuclear waste at the
site, remain concerns to neighbors.
But the terrorist attacks, in
which hijacked jets were flown into the World Trade Center and Pentagon,
made residents realize the possibility of a deliberate
Soon after Sept. 11, officials acknowledged that the
power plants were not designed to withstand the impact of a jumbo
Plant officials say security has never been tighter and
includes background checks of employees, intruder-alert systems and
detectors for explosives and metals.
Military resources from nearby
Camp Pendleton are immediately available, said Ray Golden, spokesman for
the Southern California Edison plant. For example, he said, any suspicious
air traffic can be reported to the Marines, "and they would then use their
radar to detect that and take any actions they deem
Vehicle traffic is allowed only through the main
entrance, where guards remain armed with semiautomatic weapons and IDs are
thoroughly checked. Huge concrete barriers behind other gates keep trucks
or cars from barreling through. High-surveillance cameras keep a close eye
on activities around the plant.
Outside, the Coast Guard patrols
the waters, where there is a one-mile exclusion zone that may soon be
extended to five miles. And the California Highway Patrol and state park
rangers remain on the lookout for suspicious activity in the
"It's an extremely hard target," Golden said.
residents believe more can be done. They've proposed that San Onofre limit
stockpiling of toxic chemicals or abandon the idea altogether, arguing
that such a practice would make San Onofre a more attractive terrorist
They are asking Gov. Gray Davis to accept the federal offer
of potassium iodide drops as a radiation antidote. They also want the
warning and evacuation systems to be improved.
Recently, the NRC
released a report that said that although security at San Onofre was
generally good, there were two security breaches after Sept.
Longtime San Clemente resident Craig McBride fishes nearly
every day from rock piles in front of San Onofre's sea wall and thinks
security is adequate.
"It's safe," he said, shortly after hauling
in a 2-pound sea bass. "If a terrorist comes, I'll cast my fishing line
and hook 'em for you."