Touring San Onofre: a Nuclear Power Plant

Touring a Nuclear Power Plant

By Penelope Sanchez ’19

Nine teenage girls scrambling to find working pens, one loud Head of Security officer, and over 1,619 metric tons of nuclear waste left to be seen: what more could an AP Environmental Science student want from a trip to a no-longer-operating nuclear power plant?

On the morning of November 29, 2017, OLP’s AP Environmental Science class arrived at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Established in 1969, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was, at one point in time, one of California’s greatest power generators. At its peak, it produced enough electricity to power over 1.4 million homes. Its initial success led to the creation of its second and third units in 1983 and 1984, respectively. However, in spite of all of its success in nuclear energy production, SONGS was shut down in 2013 after faulty replacement parts were delivered to the power plant, which could have potentially led to leakage, further fueling the public’s fears and qualms over nuclear power. The station is now property of Camp Pendleton’s Marine Corps and employs 300 people, most of whom are part of SONGS’s elite security team.

The OLP girls toured the whole center, stopping at designated “learning stations” where trained professionals educated the class on everything related to nuclear power and its management. First up was radiation, seemingly the most notorious and fear-inducing bi-product of nuclear energy. The class learned all about how radioactivity was measured and managed in order to maintain a safe working environment for all SONGS employees. Although the maximum amount of millirems of radioactivity a healthy adult can be exposed to in a year is 5,000 millirems, the average SONGS employee is only exposed to a maximum of 1000 in their working environment (about the same radiation given off by a standard CT scan). Their exposure is measured every work day using a radiation dose reader, which calculates the amount of radiation a person is exposed to by subtracting the amount of initial radiation present in the environment from the amount of overall radiation present in both a person and their surrounding environment. SONGS takes multiple safety precautions to ensure that all radioactivity is confined to the station.

Students were also introduced to SONGS’s security team and system, whose main goal, according to the alarmingly loud but kind Head of Security, John, is to “protect the health and safety of the public.” According to John, only former policemen, deputy sheriffs, and members of the U.S. military can apply to become part of the power plant’s security team, and must go through eight weeks of intense physical and psychological testing, as well as extensive background checks. This team is aided by SONGS’s intrusion detection system, which makes breaking into the plant nearly impossible. The security presentation’s main message can be summarized by one of John’s more Die Hard-esque quotes: “If someone even tries to break in here, somebody’s gonna have a bad day – and it’s not gonna be us.”

Then came the “pièce de résistance” (at least, in the context of an environmental science class): SONGS’s Marine Mitigation Program. The MMP, also fondly referred to as SONGS’s “SEALs team,” is dedicated to “protecting and studying all sea, air and land” currently affected or potentially affected by the production of nuclear energy and waste. The program, based in UCSB’s Marine Science Institute, monitors the environment surrounding the plant for a 100-mile radius, testing for radiological contamination, temperature, biological diversity, salinity, pH, general air quality and crop production. The MMP also maintains a 150-mile long artificial reef, which cost $20 million to build and manage, in order to mitigate any possible environmental effects that could result from the power plant. The program also builds and restores southern California wetlands, which are surprisingly biodiverse and important to maintaining a healthy local ecosystem. Most students were surprised by the lack of major environmental disturbances reported.

During the tour, many students took advantage of the opportunity to visit such a unique and fascinating location and took pictures for their Flat Lorax project. This project, a spin-off of the popular Flat Stanley Project, requires APES students to visit an interesting local area or activity that is related to one or more topics discussed in class and take a picture there with their hand-colored paper Lorax’s. Then, these girls – along with APES students from 34 other schools in 15 different states – write a letter about the aforementioned area or activity from the Lorax’s point of view. This letter is then sent to another high school, as a way of sharing different environmental issues from different parts of the country.

While the power plant is currently out of commission, SONGS acts as a storage site for all of its used nuclear fuel. The used uranium fuel is stored in sealed steel containers, which are then stored in steel-lined spent fuel pools for upwards of 15 years, until the used fuel is cooled down enough to be put into dry cask storage, which are in underground storage units reinforced with even more steel and concrete.

Although the girls learned many new things on this trip, the biggest takeaway seemed to be that fear of nuclear energy stems from the public’s general lack of knowledge about this potential clean-energy source. Even though SONGS has been shut down for years now, and nuclear energy may be difficult both to understand and manage, it is still important for it to be considered as a potential energy source for an ever-growing and industrialized country like the United States. While opinions vary, there is no doubt that OLP’s APES class will continue becoming informed on nuclear energy and other energy sources, and encourage others to do the same.