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Concerns over Fukushima spurs anti-nuclear concern in San Diego's North County. A Solana Beach resident will ask the city council to issue a resolution calling for the closure of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

November 3, 2011 1:12 p.m.


Paul Sisson, reporter, North County Times

Andrew McAllister, director of policy and strategy, California Center for Sustainable Energy

Related Story: Concerns Over San Onofre Power Plant Trickle South


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, sirens sounded at San Onofre nuclear power plant this week. As it turned out, officials say the alert was triggered by a nonradioactive ammonia leak that was resolved in a few hours. But it's alerts like that which remind North County residents about the potential dangers of San Onofre. Residents are taking their concerns to the Solana beach City Council. Paul Sisson is a reporter with the North County Times. Welcome to the show.

SISSON: Thank you. Good to be here

CAVANAUGH: And Andrew McAllister is director of policy and strategy for the California center for sustainable energy

MCALLISTER: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Paul, let me start with you. Your article talks about a presentation that's planned for the Solana beach City Council this month. Tell us about it.

SISSON: Yeah, there's a small group of local residents led by a gentleman named Corrigan Johnson. And he wants to go before the Solana Beach City Council on November 16th at 6:00 PM and give a presentation very similar to the one that a group up in San Clementi called San Clementi green gave to the San Clementi City Council. It calls into question a lot of the government information that's gone out over the last few months since the Fukushima disaster in Japan. A lot of it is about how radiation has travelled from that cite, and how it might do so if there was an accident up in San Onofre

CAVANAUGH: What's the sole of this presentation?

SISSON: He tells me that they would really like the city to -- the City Council to pass a resolution calling for San Onofre to be shut down. That's kind of a sticky wicket just because cities really have no ability to close the plant down. It's over seen by the U.S. nuclear regulatory commission. And so it's really a federal issue whether a plant stays open. Right now, they're licensed to operate through, I believe, 2022, I think that's the right number

CAVANAUGH: Now, Paul, this action as you already said is based on a larger effort that's under way in San Clementi, I believe the organization up there is known as San Clementi green. What can you tell us about them?

SISSON: Well, they really do seem to be a grass-roots organization that really came out of environmentalism and not so much nuclear power, per se. But there have been some issues between Southern California Edison, the company that runs the plant, and their regulator, some work force issues about paying more attention to the certain details and running the plant, and I think that kind of brought the nuclear issue to the attention of what was a green movement up in San Clementi.

CAVANAUGH: And you make the point in the article that this presentation to the City Council up there in San Clementi was -- is much more populated by people, there are a lot more activists up there, there's a lot more energy up this to present that. And they actually did get that resolution passed didn't they?

SISSON: They did. It wasn't quite the resolution they had asked for. They didn't convince the council to call for the plant to be closed. But the council did unanimously send letters to federal representatives asking for better solutions to issues like long-term waste storage and earthquake preparedness.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Andrew McAllister, nuclear power is, I know, sometimes talked about when it comes to the idea of reducing carbon emissions, trying to find perhaps cleaner forms of energy. But it's very controversial, isn't it?

MCALLISTER: It definitely is. I look at it -- there are a lot of different lenses you could look at nuclear power through. And there's the technical lens and how well and official and at what cost it generates -- efficiently it generates electricity. But there are so many difficult issues, and it makes it difficult for the average citizen to engage in the decision making process. And I think a reflection of that is citizen groups with concerns, with perfectly valid concerns but not really with access to decision making. These are very long, forward investments that utility companies make on our behalf under regulation by the federal government, and the state government, largely. And I think for the average concerned statuses, it's hard to have access to that process. So I think democracy in action really has these community groups coming up and challenging what they see as partial information or evidencing their lack of trust in the authorities that are making these decisions on their behalf. So there are all sorts of technical issues. We have a very difficult task ahead of us to get our carbon emissions down. And that in some sense plays into nuclear power as one of the more attractive options, but there are all sorts of untractable problems with nuclear power other than that.

CAVANAUGH: As Paul mentions, part of the reason this anti-nuke movement is res surfacing in North County is because of what happened in Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan earlier this year. Is that part of what you will the tradeoffs that you have to consider when you're thinking about increasing your reliance on nuclear energy?

>> Absolutely. Right now, California has been walking the line. We have the Diablo Canyon up north, and San Onofre, or song's. And there will be in the foreseeable future, there won't be any new ones in California. We've said that we are limiting -- basically eliminating the import of coal fired power into the state. So on the fossil side, we're basically left with natural gas. And our other alternatives are renewables of various sorts. Solar, geothermal, and wind and a number of others. So we are in a constrained situation. We don't have great flexibility for how we go forward. So it's hard to take, if we're gonna keep growing in our population and keep consuming as much energy as we consume, we have to be able to -- it's hard to take anything off the table

CAVANAUGH: Right. I'm wondering, Paul, as you said, local jurisdictions really don't have the authority to shut down a nuclear power plant. What are these local groups hoping that a resolution might do?

SISSON: You know, I've asked them about that. And my sense of it, and maybe I'm wrong, but this is just my sense, is that they feel like the more voices they have behind them, the more pressure they can put on senators and commissioners of the nuclear regulatory commission. And a lot of the meetings I've been to recently, they've talked a lot about how they feel the appointment process for who sits on the nuclear regulatory commission is flawed, and they feel like it's vetted by the nuclear industry itself am they've talked a lot about the fact that the nuclear industry itself actually pays the cost of its own regulation. So I think they feel like their some real pressure points that can be brought to bear at the federal level if the voice is large and loud enough

MCALLISTER: There's also -- great points. And there's also existing federal law, the price Anderson act which limits the liability of the companies that own nuclear power plants to essentially the first 12 billion or so dollars of damages. And after that, there's a federal guarantee where the government will step in and alleviate that liability. If an industry needs that sort of liability protection, then what are they hiding, I think is the citizenry asking that question.

CAVANAUGH: And let's say the nuclear regulatory commission, would it look at regulation resolutions passed when it came to reauthoritizing a facility?

MCALLISTER: Certainly. Like Paul said, the plant is licensed to operate until 2022, but the rethere arization of the renewal of that license, is a long process, it'll be controversial. And I think Edison is trying to figure out how to get it started sooner rather than later. And it has to come to a resolution with enough time left until 2022 for alternatives if it does not get renewed. That means a lot of investment in alternatives to fill the gap. And it's a big plant. The two generators there, it's about 200 or so megawatts, which is roughly the Egive R of about of SDG&E's load. SDG&E owns part of the plant as well. So it's an issue that affects us here. The other thing I would say is that right now in Fukushima, around the plant there's an exclusion zone of about 12-kilometer, I believe it is. Or I'm sorry, 12 miles. 20 kilometers. Within 10 miles of San Onofre, there are about one hundred thousand people. So you would see those communities more concerned about it. But within 50 miles of San Onofre, there are about eight and a half million people. Any catastrophic type of event there would affect a lot of people. And I think the problem is that on the risk assess ment side, this is a very low probability, but very high risk possibility. And it's hard for us to think about those kinds of events

CAVANAUGH: You make a point about the way different countries have taken on the idea of using nuclear power. Some countries who want to be energy independent like France rely heavily on nuclear power. Do you ever see that kind of future for us?

MCALLISTER: We classify ourselves in the same general category with France, but in fact, we're a pretty different society. They have a fairly tech noaccuratic, stratified society where the kinds of high investment, long-term planning decisions are typically made among a relative elite. In the U.S., one -- particularly in California, with our rough and tumble democracy here, you just necessarily have a lot more stakeholders involved in the decision making process. And that means an issue like nuclear power is pretty intractable, relative to a place like France. I can't see us having anywhere near the penetration of nuclear as they have in France. It's the vast majority of the power they utilize. But again, we are looking at a relatively low carbon future, and the alternatives for us to do that currently include nuclear. And and unless we're really willing to do a one 80 and go in a very different direction, and can make that decision as a society, it's hard to argue that we'll be able to take it -- argue that we'll be able to take it completely off the table

CAVANAUGH: You address the fact that the antinuclear community is much stronger in San Clementi than it is down here in the north county. And you give some reasons, some speculative reasons about that. Tell us what they are.

SISSON: Well, it's hard to know exactly what's going on there. I guess the thing that pops to your mind immediately as Mr. McAllister alluded to is proximity. San Clementi is much closer to the plant than any cities down in North County are. I talked to some folks, they had various takes. They felt like Oceanside would be San Diego County's closest city. I they felt like Oceanside has a very close affiliation with Camp Pendleton where the plant is located, and that there is a certain kind of respect for the base and what's up there. There also tends to be a little more psychological distance between -- just kind of, it's out of sight, to some degree. So that -- people think that might have something to do with it as well. And then I guess the other issue that people have talk said to me about is just the idea that socioeconomics might be a little different in certain parts of North County than they are, say, in San Clementi, which I think is seen as a relatively affluent community. And right now, as we see with the occupy movement, there's just a lot of financial concerns on folks' minds. So something that isn't an immediate problem is just maybe not getting as much attention right now as it might 5 years ago when the economy was much better

CAVANAUGH: Just wondering, Paul, when those sirens went off earlier this week, and of course we know that it was a nonradiation ammonia leak, and it was resolved quickly. But does that cause a commotion? Does that cause jitters in the North County?

SISSON: Oh, absolutely. We were watching it on twitter as it came out, and people were very interested in why the sirens were going off. One thing to make clear is that there are community warning sirens within a 10-mile radius of the plant, and I'm told those did not sound. It was just sirens on the plant itself. But because the plant is on the beach, and there are surfers out there, and folks at the local camp ground that's there, the San Onofre beach camp ground, they would have been able to hear the sirens that were on the plant itself. Those sirens were basically just to warn the people working at the plant that there was an ammonia leak and it could be dangerous if you wandered into it. So definitely. I've been covering nuclear power at this plant since 2003. And I definitely since Fukushima notice a big difference in the amount of attention that any kind of news item gets out of San Onofre compared to how it was before Fukushima.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think that explains why this presentation even got on the Solana beach City Council agenda?

SISSON: Yeah, I talked to their city manager there, a guy named David Ott, and he said -- he was a first responder for many years. A fire chief. And he said that Fukushima and kind of how the radiation spread beyond a 10-mile radius, he said that it just seemed to be worth listening to, whether our current planning for an emergency is adequate or not. What could we learn from the fact that things have gone a lot bit beyond our planning zone which is 10 miles?

CAVANAUGH: Well, we'll be following this story. We're out of time. I want to thank my guests so much. I've been speaking with Paul Sisson, a reporter with the North County Times. And Andrew McAllister, with the California sustainability energy. Thank you.

MCALLISTER: Thank you Maureen.

SISSON: Thank you.