Prescription for Disaster

If San Onofre is so safe, why are federal officials pushing anti-radiation pills on its neighbors?

SONGS' neighbors won't be seeing any KI pills until-at the earliest-sometime next year. The federal and state agencies responsible for advising San Onofre's off-site emergency-planning team won't be finished with their KI reports until September. In the meantime, Orange County has yet to stockpile KI for residents around San Onofre because officials say they have a better plan. According to Lolita Barrett, who heads the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's emergency-management division, "If we evacuate people, there's no need for them to be protected with KI."

But an evacuation of San Onofre is likely to be even messier than the one Osibin ridicules at Diablo Canyon. Engineers inside the plant would have 15 minutes to notify local officials that they had declared an emergency. Once they do, 51 sirens in the hills within 10 miles of San Onofre would fire off a chilling, 100-decibel scream. According to the plan, the entire populations of San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Camp Pendleton and Dana Point would suspend their natural terror and tune in by radio and television for instructions. Barrett says the message they would hear would go more or less as follows: "There has been a problem at the plant. As a precautionary measure, we've determined that the schoolchildren at Capistrano Unified School District should be moved out of the area."

This news would be followed by the telephone number of an emergency hot line. If a general evacuation has been agreed upon by San Onofre's off-site emergency-planning team, the locations of five emergency-reception centers in San Diego and Orange counties would be announced. If the anticipated radiation leak is both fast-moving and of a short duration, people may be told to stay indoors, close their windows, and shut down their ventilation systems. During a general evacuation, officials envision an orderly flow of evacuees; Barrett insists that no more than 150,000 people would be involved in an evacuation during a worst-case scenario.

But if Three Mile Island is any guide, people who live anywhere within 50 miles of San Onofre can be counted on to self-evacuate. Once the sirens go off, hundreds of thousands of additional automobiles, if not more, will likely hit the interstates in search of safety. "I don't know that we have a specific plan for a panic," said Barrett. "A lot of people are going to panic, but the sensible folks are going to listen. They're the only people we're going to target when an emergency occurs."

Sense may prove the first casualty in a nuclear disaster. While a few thousand "sensible" people gather around their televisions awaiting evacuation instructions, others will pack their prized possessions into cars and jam every road out of town. Depending on the scope of the disaster, it's entirely conceivable that they will fret and fume at the wheels of those cars while a radioactive plume passes slowly through the gnarled traffic.

County officials may have more faith in human nature, but they admit they aren't sure what a nuclear disaster at San Onofre-and its subsequent evacuation-would look like. As Orange County's representative to San Onofre's off-site emergency-planning team, Barrett participates in biannual safety drills at the plant. Utilizing a state-of-the-art, $30 million computer simulator, the team acts out a series of randomly selected hypothetical disasters and responses; their preparedness is monitored by officials from the NRC and FEMA. The 500-person ensemble includes public-safety officials and emergency crews from Camp Pendleton, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego County and Capistrano Unified School District. The drills also include emergency workers from numerous agencies who are trained to penetrate the radiation plume. In a real emergency, each worker would be equipped with a yellow radiation suit. Sewn into the outside of each garment is a radiation-detection badge, and inside each emergency kit is a canister containing an anti-radiation pill.

Despite the fact that its emergency workers have also carried KI tablets since the plant opened in 1968, Southern California Edison, which owns and operates SONGS, says it has no position on whether the public that lives around the plant should be issued the pills. "We will abide by whatever guideline the state and counties decide upon," commented Ray Golden, a Southern California Edison communications manager who works at SONGS. "We've never had an event. We routinely test the procedures three times per year, and we've been proud to say that we haven't had a civil penalty since 1993." (That $50,000 fine, levied by the NRC during an annual inspection five years ago, cited the plant's failure to maintain an operable fire-suppression system in one area of the plant.)

"The likelihood of San Onofre having an event that would be cause for concern is millions and millions to one," Golden claimed.

On a recent tour of SONGS, Golden demonstrated how the plant uses a life-size replica of its own reactor-control room to simulate an emergency. According to an Emergency Classification and Event Code Chart, which hangs on the wall of the real control room, there are about a dozen basic types of accidents that could occur at San Onofre. They range from things like a ruptured cooling-water pipe or an "uncontrolled release of radioactivity" to a "site area emergency" or the worst of all, a much-dreaded "general emergency."

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