SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. (AP) — Using a cane and wearing a hat reading "Peace No Nukes," 85-year-old Lyn Harris Hicks shuffled to the front gates of the San Onofre nuclear power plant on Friday to celebrate a utility company's decision to close the seaside facility for good.
A long-time resident of San Clemente in Southern California, Harris Hicks said she has been fighting the plant — which has been idle since last year — since the 1960s over safety concerns.
"The announcement that we're not going to restart and that we're going to close it has cut the shackles on us and we're just floating," she said, chuckling as she leaned for support against a friend at the impromptu celebration by two dozen community residents.
Environmentalists and nearby residents hailed the decision by Southern California Edison to cease efforts to restart the plant, which hasn't produced electricity since a small radiation leak led to the discovery of unusual damage to tubes that carry radioactive water.
Still, opponents of the plant acknowledged that questions remain regarding what will happen to radioactive waste generated by the site and to the region's energy needs.
Business groups grumbled at the decision to close the plant located between San Diego and Los Angeles, saying it would wallop the local economy as companies — and households — face the prospect of power shortages.
Edison International, the utility's corporate parent, said the company decided that ongoing uncertainty about when or whether the plant might restart was not good for customers or investors.
Gary Headrick, who aggressively fought efforts to restart the plant and heads the group San Clemente Green, compared his happiness to the day his children were born.
"The joy and the relief is comparable to something that big in my life, to know that 8 million people will be safe now from this supposed restart," he said as he celebrated outside the plant. As he spoke, passing cars honked in approval and a group of bicyclists whizzing by in the morning fog shouted, "Shut it down!"
Business groups that pushed hard for Edison to restart the plant, however, bemoaned the announcement as the beginning of tough times for the region. Chambers of commerce said Southern California made it through peak electricity demand last summer thanks to a couple of short-term fixes but that wouldn't solve the problem this year — or in the long run.
"It is a sad day that we had to come to this point," said Ruben Gonzalez, vice president of public policy and political affairs for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "Not only because approximately 1,100 folks are going to lose their jobs — high-wage, good paying jobs — but also because it is an issue of power reliability."
Gonzalez said his group, which represents 1,600 businesses, will look seriously to state and federal leaders to come up with solutions.
San Onofre was able to power 1.4 million homes. The plant was responsible for about 20 percent of the electricity used by San Diego and southern Orange County.
California officials have said they would be able to make it through this summer without the plant but warned that wildfires or another disruption in distribution could cause power shortages.
Theresa Harvey, president of the chamber of commerce in the Orange County city of Fullerton, questioned whether energy alternatives proffered by environmentalists would be able to meet the demand for electricity in the densely populated region.
"There are lots of alternative sources of energy but unfortunately things like solar don't run at night and wind power has not been determined to be a reliable source," she said. "In the long run, it is going to be a real detriment to the Southern California region, especially with the environmental restrictions put on any kind of construction that goes into power generating stations."
Sandra Bartsch, who lives less than 30 miles from the plant in San Diego County, said she hugged and kissed her 5-year-old son when she heard about the closure. The 44-year-old, who became opposed to the plant after last year's leak, acknowledged that questions remain about the future of the site but said for now she's relishing the victory.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Bartsch said. "But today we are just happy."
Taxin reported from Tustin. AP Writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report from San Diego.