I remember driving down to San Diego, or taking the Pacific Surfliner there, and seeing these giant, industrial domes along the coast—not knowing if they were digester tanks, gravel silos, or toxic waste containers. Still, I thought to myself, "I gotta get in there."
It didn't take me long to figure out that those were the plants of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station—and off-limits to the public, which only piqued my interest.
It's kind of amazing that there's a nuclear power plant still on the beach in California—in fact, right next to a state beach. But then again, at one time, there used to be oil derricks all up and down the coastline. The military took over many if not all of our beaches as part of their coastal defense during World War II and the Cold War.
Image: Google Maps Satellite View
It's hard to imagine either of those beach conditions now, as it will probably be difficult to imagine, 30 years from now, that there was a nuclear power plant there, too. It may take that long to decommission, demolish, and decontaminate—if not longer. They only just started two years ago.
But that means that now is the perfect time to visit, when the Department of Energy and Southern California Edison need the support of the community, and are willing to let people take tours inside the outer perimeter before anything gets torn down.
Although I was able to get security clearance relatively easily, San Onofre is still a highly sensitive area, vulnerable to attack. Its security protections are classified, and there are still fuel cells inside there. They don't want photos of that stuff made public.
They also don't want to expose lay citizens to radiation hazards, so although I would've been willing to step into a Hazmat suit, they wouldn't let me inside any of the buildings.
But, I thought, maybe that day will come—before everything is torn down. Maybe the Navy, which owns the land and determines what stays and what goes, might want to keep something as a historic monument to the history of this stretch of sand.
Or maybe they'll demolish, excavate, and cover as much up as they can, returning the beach back to its natural—though not original—state. After all, they dug up a lot of bluffs in building this site. They're not going to fill them back in.
And in a few decades, when travelers pass through this stretch of the Old Pacific Coast Highway, or crawl down the 5 Freeway, they'll have no idea about the concrete foundations that were buried so deep, it was easier to leave them there than dig them up.
Will the Navy build something else on top?
No one knows for sure what will happen, but it's difficult not to speculate. Sometimes when I see a young, attractive man, I try to imagine what he'll look like in his twilight years—whether he'll age gracefully and remain handsome, or he'll crumple under the pressure of age and time and sprout too much hair in too many odd places. And sometimes, when I see an older gentleman, I try to picture him with the optimism of youth, and without the disappointment of end-of-life inevitability in his gaze.
I never know whether or not I've guessed correctly, but I still try.
Seeing a monumental structure like this come down, probably in my lifetime, made me realize that I am witnessing history, right now. Back in New York, I struggled with the closure of my favorite bar and the changes in subway nomenclature and timetables, but those losses were more or less incidental with the passage of time—perhaps the answer to a future trivia question, or a fond memory to be shared with my peers of the time. But for some reason, this felt really big to me.
It feels as historic as the above-ground train lines that are coming back to Los Angeles, decades after the decline of the Pacific Electric in the 20th Century. Seeing the Expo Line being built—in sections of track along an extant right of way—feels like bearing witness to the World's Fair or early feats of aviation. These are the types of things that people tell their grandchildren about. I was there when.
I wonder who I'll have to tell. My friends back in New York don't really understand the significance of our beloved buildings that sometimes burst into flames, our neon sign that has burned behind a wall for 70 years, our relit marquees, and our relocated historic homes.
We Angelenos come out in droves to watch a giant boulder make its way to an art museum and to watch a space shuttle crawl through the streets of South LA. It's hard to understand that if you don't live here. It's hard even for some people who do live here to understand that.
Am I just more aware of my surroundings now? As the years trickle away, can I more easily grasp the significance of things as they happen, without the hindsight of decades past?
In historic preservation, they say that the most endangered buildings are the ones that no one pays much attention to—usually those that are around 30 years old. In the 1990s, no one cared about modernist 1960s architecture. What can we say now about the significance of the shopping centers, schools, and sports venues that were built in 1985? To us, they're outdated at best, and probably also boring, kitschy, or maybe even ugly.
But how might we consider them differently 20 years from now, when their significance becomes more apparent? And what happens to them in the meantime, if they survive at all?
What value can I place on the past events of my life, at only 40 years old? Does the same rule apply to the human experience? Do we really only understand ourselves after the age of 50? Will I even live long enough to understand the meaning of what's happening to me right now?
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