The Scariest Workplace in America?

Reading this will upset a bunch of folks living near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (called SONGS), between Orange and San Diego Counties, California. Because as far as I can tell, the truth percolating inside SONGS nuke plant ain’t getting out.

SONGS / Southern California Edison employs 3,000. Not all from the local area. Some permanent. Some ‘contract’ players. Moving from power-plant contract, to power-plant contract. Statewide, nationwide, probably internationally. And, not necessarily to nuke facilities.

Most of what happens at SONGS, in maintenance, upkeep, revitalization, infrastructure improvements, also applies to non-nuke power plants. Nukes make up maybe 20% of our power generation nationwide. Welders, concrete specialists, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, you name it, are in there servicing SONGS. Trying to keep the cranky ol’gal from hiccuping. Goof-ups at SONGS are labeled “Hiccups.”

Typically, in death-defying pursuits: jet pilots, astronauts, sky diving, mountain climbing, wild animal trainers, sword swallowers, snake charmers, special-ops military, nuke workers – the more dangerous the task, the more understated the definition of fatal human error.

At SONGS, goofs = Hiccups.

Author Tom Wolfe introduced us to deadly understatements with “Screw the Pooch.” A jet pilot inadvertently buys the farm in Wolfe’s epic The Right Stuff. No biggie the death thing. It’s the known cost of doing risky business.

In military-think, potential death is basic to the task. Marginalized to be sure.

Avoidat all costs. Keep losses small / militarily insignificant. When worst happens, get back to the drawing boards to restrategize. In Iraq, that became “The Surge.” In WWII it meant dropping the “Big One.” Which was actually two Big Ones, ending that war. WWII military minds calculated dropping “the Big One” twice, saved lives.

Ghastly calculations, the business of flow-charting war: guesstimating potential, rationalized fatalities. Expendable human life. A sobering reality, as people in high places, think-tanks, military brain-trusts, political leaders, and corporations put pluses and minus on our existence.

When we dropped the two Big Ones, labeled Little Boy / Hiroshima – Aug. 6, 1945 and Fat Man / Nagasaki – Aug. 9, 1945 (our nuclear awakening in two acts), no one knew for certain the degree of devastation our two “big ones” would cause, slipping from their bomb bays, diving head first into unholy infamy.

Lesson learned? Well, no one’s dropped once since. Pray Oh Lord, they never will.

SNF (scary nuke fact): Nuclear Power Plants harbor that same awesome power in varying degrees. It’s why insurance companies won’t insure them. If a severe hiccup burps up, like happened in Chernobyl Russia, loss of life and property is incalculable. And everlasting.

Loose-nukes: the unholy-gift that keeps on giving. Chernobyl today, 25-years after its meltdown, radiates its invisible death knell 24-7. A full time on-site crew, man the crumbling site, monitoring its hellish leak. San Clemente, a deserted city, once 55,000 strong, decays nearby. SNF: Nuclear contamination cannot be contained once its terrible genie escapes the bottle.

SNF: one “spent” fuel rod, mere inches in length – past its generating prime, is relieved of duty by entombing it in a steel and concrete coffin many feet thick – will hold its radiant charge for 5,000 to 50,000 years, depending which nuke’pert you ask.

SNF: no one, really understands the impacts. Like the two-nukes dropped on Japan, no one knew till after, what we’d created. Minutes after Japan’s nuclear incineration, the stunned world became an expert.

Generating nuclear power is mathematical guesswork, based on best-guess scientific
assumptions. It’s why nuke-plants are over engineered steel-and-concrete behemoths. To protect surrounding humanity from its minuscule radiating death-rods, should a hiccup jump its perimeter.

Smaller than mom’s rolling pin. Able to devastate entire counties, or worse, depending on prevailing winds should the bad-beastie escape. And the beast can release in a 1000 different angry variables.

And now, who could imagine Japan, touted as technologically superior worldwide and having learned from experience, would produce the out of control, radiating nuclear meltdown / human screw-up we now watch in stunned silence on TV?

For the indescribably unfortunate Japanese citizen suffering it point blank, with nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide, stuck in yet another manmade radiating grim reality, waiting for the other shoe to fall – is the scariest, soon to be deadliest workplace on earth.

But Japan’s evolving nuclear tragedy in no way excuses SONGS’ troubled nuke-plant fireworks, as SONGS holds down solid last place in US-nukes’ unsatisfactory safety record, or makes a SONGS’ similiar conclusion any less frightening. Because all SONGS needs, is the same perfect storm to hit California’s coastline.

Geologists warn, SONGS sits atop the same ticking time bomb ring-of-fire tectonic underpinnings as does Japan. A Pacific Rim necklace (includes the Indian Ocean) extending north up the western coastlines of South and North America, east across the Aleutians to Asia, flowing south along Asia’s western perimeter to Australia.

Japan’s weak link in the Pacific Rim’s infamous ring-of-fire necklace mirrors a SONGS potential.

Seismologist agree, the USA’s west coast is overdue for “our” next big-one. Japan is the example. SONGS is our neighboring reality.

There are 104 nuke plants in the USA. Most radiate east of the Mississippi.
California has four. Two are operational. SONGS is one of the two, with the worst safety record of all 104, right here in San Clemente.

Did I mention SONGS is old? Primitive by today’s nuke-plant standards. But
Edison keeps bandaging its 50?s era design, constructed in the 60?s. Original plan: decommission by 2013. Relentless government lobbying has pushed SONGS end-time to 2020 to maximize profitability before mothballing.

But just maybe, Edison wringing every last drop of stockholder dividend from
its tired beast, long past her prime, is why morale inside SONGS’ grumbling belly of 3000 caregivers grows more corrosive by the day. Multiple management changes in as many years have fixed nothing.

A new plant CEO is up to bat. He sounds as good as the last one. And the one before. And? SNF: a growling gut, causes hiccups. Hiccups of the nuclear kind no one on earth can afford. And especially San Clemente.

SONGS score of 10 – 10 being worst, begs this question: as SONGS good neighbor, how expendable are we?

JERRY COLLAMER is co-founder of Wild Heritage Planners, an organization dedicated to sustainable environmental planning in Southern California, and contributes to WilderUtopia.com.


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