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Japan meltdown focuses concern on San Onofre

March 15, 2011 12:09:51 AM PDT
The crisis at Japan's nuclear reactors has a lot of people thinking about the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States.

In Southern California, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is in an earthquake zone on the water.

San Onofre State Beach is known for its waves, but its most recognizable landmark is the nuclear power station.

In recent days fallout from the meltdown in Japan has people in the U.S. questioning the safety of radioactive energy, especially in earthquake hot zones.

"Until you satisfy me that it's safe I wouldn't want any more nuclear power plants going in close," said San Clemente resident John Boyer.

There are 104 non-military nuclear reactors in the U.S. Most are located near population centers.

In Southern California, the San Onofre facility is also situated near a fault line and the Pacific Ocean, two factors similar to Japan's unfolding disaster.

"I don't feel as though there is any cause for alarm unless there is any type of emergency situation," said Dana Point resident Darren Denny.

"I think it's important for people to realize that radiation exposure is not a death sentence," said Bill McBride, a professor from UCLA's department of radiation oncology.

But even before 9/11 the site was built to withstand a 7.0-magnitude earthquake and the impact from a 25-foot tsunami.

Southern California Edison Spokesman Gil Alexander says the two reactors have been updated since going online in the 1980s.

"The technology that you see behind us, it's not all even 1980s, although that is fairly new. There is equipment we've installed just within the last year that makes the plant even safer," said Alexander.

The San Onofre reactor differs from Japan's because it was built with second-generation technology, technology that was first initiated onboard nuclear submarines.

Inside the reactors at San Onofre are three layers of concrete and steel, each designed to catch and trap radiation should a leak occur -- an event that would sound sirens alerting the public to leave.

"You've just got to get away from it, and if it was a serious threat and we knew that it was causing a lot of damage, I would go as far inland as I could get before it hit," said Smith.