Coast lines: Nuclear waste discovery is new, but activism efforts have a long history at San Onofre

Surfers surf in the ocean with a nuclear power plant in the distance.
Ella Boyd SC ’22 traces the long history of political activism efforts at San Onofre State Park. (Ella Boyd • The Student Life)

San Onofre State Park is a location historically riddled with dichotomies — located in Southern California, the vast beach and famous surf spot has a tumultuous political history. Strife over surfing laws ran rampant in the 1900s right up until Richard Nixon purchased his house deemed “Casa Pacifica” in 1969, and the park is situated on Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps Base. 

When it was discovered that 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste is buried under the ground only 100 feet away from the shoreline, locals and tourists alike became alarmed — is the area still safe? How did something like this even happen in the first place? I, too, wondered those things. But, I also wondered: Does the history of the park have anything to do with this? 

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, also known as SONGS, is located at the park and stands out boldly — a stark pair of bulbous, cement structures, large and intrusive against the natural cliffs that make up the otherwise uninterrupted coastline. But what can’t be seen is far more sinister than a spoiled view of the water: The generating station has a history of dangerous operations and failed inspections. In 2006, the plant leaked radioactive waste. In 2012, a steam generator leaked waste again. Why do events like this seem to be commonplace here? Surely this cannot be the common way to manage radioactive waste, not to mention the short distance from the waste to the ocean, potentially wreaking havoc on fish and wildlife. 

Although the Coastal Commission approved the nuclear generator for operation in 2015, they noted at the time that there would definitely be future harm to the environment. This was deemed likely inescapable without a major infrastructure overhaul to protect against earthquakes, corrosion and even motion from the freeway. Currently, officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are not optimistic, admitting that there is “high level nuclear waste” on site. 

Unfortunately, disagreements between activists and people in power over the park trace far back in history. The presence of Nixon and his agenda in immediate proximity to surfers — a classic symbol of counterculture and dismissal of norms of the time — lent itself to local activist movements. Because of the military base, the clashing presences of the Marines and the surfers made for a difficult political climate as well. Surfers would even sneak onto the beaches of Camp Pendleton to surf, sparking fights and getting their boards confiscated by the Marines. 

After the military took control of the area around 1951, the San Onofre Surf Club was born. Members received a key to the ominous metal gate that blocked access for most people in the area. Soon enough, though, copies were made for the non-club surfers and restrictions tightened. IDs were checked carefully against rosters. It was serious business. But the system appeased surfers and military personnel alike. Stickers adorned surfers’ cars as they drove up to the cliffs, and members of the club were finally allowed access to go down to the beach and, more importantly, the ocean. 

For those who were not part of this elite group, however, San Onofre was still off limits. And, in 1955, things went south even for members of the Surf Club. When the club was no longer allowed to control access and instead made to purchase stricter day passes, surfers rebelled. There were so many rules broken it could only be described as chaos: raging bonfires, overnight camping and the tearing down of regulatory signs were just a few choice activities of the angered locals. Things only got worse in the 60s when anti-nuke demonstrations began against the nuclear power plant. 

Ultimately, the fight for public beach access was eventually won, providing a benefit to everyone in the area. The issuance of the lease has a funny second interpretation. Apparently, Nixon wanted to build a personal library on the military land, and surfers wanted access to the waves, so the “Legacy of Lands” movement has a little more personal involvement from Nixon than one may assume. 

The lease lasted 50 years and was renewed a few years ago, easing concerns about public access being lost. 

Nowadays, the biggest problem isn’t public access but rather health and environmental safety. With the nuclear waste problem remaining largely unsolved, it is once again up to locals, surfers, beach-goers and environmentalists alike to remember how San Onofre State Park came to exist the way it is today: with activism, legal battles and persistence. 

San Onofre has an unfortunate past, but it, and other places like it, can have a great future if everyone makes their voice heard. And if we take anything away from the strange history of San Onofre, let it be the reminder that we all have the power to create this kind of change. Perhaps our reasons for doing good deeds are different, but the impact remains the same regardless. If surfers from decades ago are behind the existence of one of California’s most popular state parks today, think about the impact any small act — or the protesting of harmful ones — could have on our shared world’s future. 

Ella Boyd SC ’22 is TSL’s travel and outdoor columnist. She loves surfing and skiing and hopes to see you out there!

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