Steve Netherby, San Clemente
Last September, as reported in this paper, I hiked the John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to the peak of Mt. Whitney. The JMT is an iconic hike, through perhaps the most beautiful country in the High Sierras, and I had wanted to complete it since I was a teenager. After my pack and I had ridden trains and buses from San Clemente to Yosemite, I set out on the trail with a sense of elation and happy anticipation.
As I trekked upward from Yosemite’s Happy Isles toward Vernal and Nevada Falls, I recorded my impressions on my iPhone’s audio notes application. Ironically, my seventh voice memo on that blue-sky day was a sobering one, all about San Clemente’s neighboring San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station: I asked myself, “What if SONGS melts down while I’m up here and Jackie (my wife) is home in San Clemente?”
First, I might not find out for days, possibly weeks—there’s no cell phone service over 98 percent of the trail. Second, once I did find out, I would do all in my power to get home to my wife; we’ll have been married for 46 years this February and, if she were exposed to the radiation, I would want to be with her, to hold her close and share her fate. But would I be allowed to return? What if she was trapped in the evacuation zone and I couldn’t get to her? The questions that came, one after the other, were heart wrenching.
For too many years, we in Orange and San Diego Counties have, in exchange for the privilege of residing and working in this beachfront paradise, lived in denial that we risk health and life-years every day to what the recent book Nuclear Roulette by Gar Smith, rightly calls “the most dangerous energy source on the planet.” In our lifetimes, we may never sheath the sword of Damocles that hangs over us here—in the 4,000-plus tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste (produced by the plant, when it’s active, at the rate of 500 pounds per day, and stockpiled a few miles from our doors) that no container, natural or manmade, can imprison indefinitely. What we can do is limit the existential threat of a Fukushima-style meltdown.
SONGS has been shuttered for a year. More than 700 workers there are slated for layoff. In towns around Orange County, homebuilders are offering full-featured homes that require no outside power. The time is right and ripe for closing SONGS for good—and turning our talent and treasure to advancing green power and diminishing greatly the frightening legacy we bequeath to our children and grandchildren.