There have been many comments, both spoken and written, in the last few months about the future of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. I attended the public meeting that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held in Dana Point last month and heard a lot of facts and a lot of fiction. Most of what I heard from activists and concerned citizens was just plain misinformation. It was frustrating because it was not a balanced discussion. I strongly feel the need to offer some of that balance right now.

There is something critically important about San Onofre that I seldom hear anyone talk about. That is, the nuclear plant’s central role in helping California meet its clean energy goals and reducing air pollution.

I had the pleasure of serving the citizens of Southern California while representing them on the board of governors of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Many of you are old enough to remember the 1970s. You surely recall the dirty, smoggy air here. The pollution was so bad there were many days you couldn’t even see the magnificent mountain ranges that surround our region. On particularly bad days, stinging eyes and burning lungs drove people indoors.

Today, Southern California is a very different place. Although the population has grown tremendously since the ’70s, as has the number of cars on the road, the air here is much cleaner. We have a long way to go before our air is truly clean, but the mountains are visible again and days of stinging eyes are rare.

Cleaner-burning gasoline and more fuel-efficient cars have helped us get here, although transportation remains the largest source of pollution in Southern California. Phasing out coal-burning power plants is another factor, along with the tremendous growth in California of clean energy sources.

One of the single biggest sources of this clean energy is San Onofre. Since starting up in the late 1960s, San Onofre has produced billions of watts of electricity, while emitting virtually no air pollution. It saves about 6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually that would have been produced by comparable fossil fuel-burning plants.

In addition, the plant has spared us all from breathing millions of tons of nitrous oxides and particulate matter, both of which contribute to smog.

Proceed cautiously

Today, San Onofre is the target of antinuclear activists who want it shut down permanently. Clearly, public safety trumps clean energy. San Onofre and the NRC have said the plant will not start up again unless it is safe, and they must proceed cautiously.

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