California Beaches, Power Plants and the Night Air

by Mark Hahn

People’s dreams have raced up and down the Pacific Coast Highway long before Jack Kerouac wrote Big Sur or Neil Young sang Long May You Run. Surfers have spent their days waiting for the perfect wave off the California coast for a hundred years. Who can blame them? When you have the time to appreciate them, the natural forces present in the ocean are as captivating as they are overwhelming. Nothing is perhaps as beautiful as watching the vast Pacific Ocean crash against the soft sandy strip of shore along the coast of Southern California.

The Beach Boys formed a surf band in Hawthorn, CA only two years after Sandra Dee brought surfing to the masses in the 1959 movie, Gidget. Around the same time, modern surfboards utilizing foam and fiberglass were introduced. The miracles of poly-plastics replaced the long tradition of ecologically sound wooden boards. With offshore oil rigs, oil wells dotting the hills and huge refineries built along the coast from San Francisco all the way down to San Diego, it is only fitting that the image of personal beach freedom relies on slickly packaged and ecologically unsound products.

The Encina Power Station is located in Carlsbad, CA. In its shadow, lies the Agua Hedionda Lagoon (means “sick/stinking water” in Spanish). It is an important local ecological asset used as an estuary by sea birds and is an economic asset providing work for the local population. It is also a source of mussels and oysters for local seafood restaurants. The lagoon provides the cooling water required by the Power Station, whose capacity has been recently increased to 588-megawatt output to partially make up for the recent closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Plant further up the coast.

Large tanks sit atop the hills surrounding the lagoon and construction cranes tower over the whole landscape. A large scale desalination plant is being constructed on the site to help provide fresh water to the local area – the Carlsbad Desalination Project is scheduled to be complete in 2016 with a projected cost of a cool billion dollars. This is cutting edge technology.

At night, many locals come to the lagoon to congregate, drink beer and fish. You find a typical cross section of the multi-ethnic Californian population here. Everyone gets along. It’s hard for anyone not to be happy when you are cooled by a sea breeze and hear the ocean waves crashing on the shore in the distance. Lovers hold hands and pass in their own shared silence. Children run around loudly playing tag. Sea birds fly overhead.

A short drive up the I-5 brings you to the San Onofre State Beach that borders the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station. To get here you must pass by a US Marine Corps recreation area surrounded by chain link fences and armed guards. RVs and military families are packed inside. The state beach has a more desperate and hostile feel than other local beaches. Maybe it is the emotional aura of the Marine’s war-seasoned aggression and lingering PTSD. Maybe it is the residual disruption of nature caused by the nearby nuclear facility—always looming in the distance as a symbol of menace. One thing is for sure though, my curiosity has been satisfied by this one visit. I have seen it.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station was closed down in 2013 due to numerous safety issues. It is currently undergoing the initial stages of being decommissioned – not a small task when you consider that besides all the contaminated machinery in the plant, that more than 4,000 tons of radioactive waste is stored there. Lefty Environmentalists had protested the existence of this plant for years, siting the potential risks to both the environment and the more than 8,000,000 people that could be effected by a major accident on the site.

While the US company, Bechtel, assured everyone that the plant was safe because it was designed to withstand 7.0 magnitude earthquakes, the region is known historically to experience 8.0 magnitude earthquakes and greater. The facility is also protected by a 25 ft “tsunami wall,” but when businesses are focusing on meeting schedule and getting paid, they don’t look back. Existing Native American accounts suggest historic tsunamis have hit the California coast with waves as high as 60 ft. For reference, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear Power Plant in Japan was protected by a 33 foot tsunami wall and the world is still seeing how well that worked! Oil spills are one thing—the environment gets over them relatively quickly, but on a human scale, nuclear accidents are essentially forever.

When you leave the parking area of the San Onofre State Beach, a narrow path winds along the rugged cliffs toward the eerie glow of the San Onofre Nuclear plant. The beach here is rocky and the loose stones beneath the waves are thrown against each other sounding much like you would expect the smashing of skulls and bones to sound. It’s easy to find yourself looking over your shoulder while you make this dark walk. Being stuck between a military facility and a defunct nuclear power plant does not give the casual traveler a reassuring feeling.

The green glow coming through empty watchtower windows evoke images of sci-fi horror movies or Scooby Doo cartoons. The sodium lamps cycle on and off at automated intervals. The world might go awry and some systems will continue on no matter what we do. It feels like no human should be here now.

Out of the mist appeared a young man with the air of an addict, not a surfer. Angel dust or huffing glue makes people appear semi-dead. This man seemed to almost be a zombie. Shivers from the cold ocean spray brought on fear of the unknown as he disappeared into the darkness.