The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station sits on the Pacific Coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, just a few miles from San Clemente. The first reactor at San Onofre began operation in the late 1960’s and is now shut down. Two additional reactors were built on the site and began operation in 1982 and 1983, respectively. They are both 1,080-megawatt reactors designed by Combustion Engineering and operated by Southern California Edison. They are currently not in service due to a radioactive leak in their steam generators discovered in January.
San Onofre has the worst safety record of all nuclear power plants in the United States, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Numerous safety hazards have been confirmed over the years, including, most recently, failure to comply with fire-safety regulations. Fires pose one of the greatest risks for causing a core meltdown, which would release tons of radiation and threaten the lives and environment of the communities surrounding the reactors. San Onofre has been in violation of these fire regulations for more than 30 years.
Workers at San Onofre also have long complained of safety violations and intimidation from Edison management. Workers at the plant have expressed fear of retaliation if they raise safety concerns, which was deemed by the NRC as a “chilling effect.” In spite of this dampener, the complaint record from San Onofre employees was 10 times higher than the national average in 2008 – and complaints keep coming. "If the workers at the power plant are afraid to tell the truth, that jeopardizes the health and safety of the public," a worker told CBS Evening News in 2011.
The two reactors at San Onofre have been shut down since January, when a tube failed in one of the steam generators in the Unit 3 reactor, releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere. Since then, subsequent inspections have revealed that thousands of tubes in steam generators have unprecedented wear and damage, despite the fact that two new generators were installed in the Unit 2 reactor in 2010 and two in the Unit 3 reactor in 2011. At a price tag of $671 million, the steam generators, all of identical design, are unable to operate without a major risk of failure, according to studies of the units.
Despite the safety risks and high likelihood of generator failure, on October 3, 2012, Edison submitted to the NRC its plans for restarting the San Onofre Unit 2 reactor.
More than 8.4 million people live within 50 miles of the San Onofre plant. Interstate 5, the main freeway connecting Los Angeles and San Diego, is only 1,000 feet from the two reactors. Current regulations only require a 10-mile emergency evacuation plan, yet following the Fukushima-daiichi nuclear catastrophe in Japan in 2011, the U.S. government warned citizens to evacuate if they lived within 50 miles of the crippled San Onofre reactors – more than 2 million Japanese people lived within that radius at the time of the Fukushima disaster.
In the event of a major accident at San Onofre, millions of people would be at risk of exposure to radiation, and emergency plans would be unable to cope with the chaos that would ensue.