Personal experience with a nuclear disaster inspires Del Mar resident’s work as an activist for safety


Del Mar resident Cathy Iwane was elated when she learned Southern California Edison would permanently shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

Iwane has fought the effort to restart the plant since she and her family fled Japan last year to escape the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Three days after Iwane signed a lease to a Solana Beach home, however, a small quantity of radioactive gas leaked inside one of the buildings at San Onofre.

“I thought, ‘Are we going to be living like gypsies?’” recalled Iwane, who now lives with her 13-year-old daughter in Del Mar. “Rather than running away from everything, I decided to see what’s available. Little did I know there was such a strong community of activists that devoted their lives to this.”

Iwane joined San Clemente Green, a grassroots group that advocated the permanent closure of San Onofre, and frequently shared her story during city council meetings and other events.

“A lot of people say a nuclear disaster would never happen here,” Iwane said. “The world needs to learn from the mistakes of Fukushima.”

For 25 years, Iwane lived in Wakayama, Japan, which is 380 miles away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. While her city wasn’t devastated from the nuclear accident, Iwane grew concerned for her family’s health when the Japanese government began burning radioactive debris in garbage incinerators around the country.

Iwane joined other concerned citizens to petition against the burning of waste in Wakayama. Although the petition was successful, Iwane said the government began burning debris in Osaka — about an hour away from Wakayama.

“Although it’s low-dose, this stuff goes into the air, it gets blown around by the wind and it rains down onto the people, onto crops,” Iwane said.

Iwane began testing her family’s food with a Geiger counter, a tool that measures ionizing radiation in the atmosphere. She found high levels of contamination in fish and trace elements of contamination in milk.

After discovering her younger daughter’s school lunches contained ingredients from northeastern Japan, Iwane began preparing homemade lunches. The school administrator, Iwane said, told her not to alert the other parents of her findings.

“My daughter was forced to tell her classmates that she had a food allergy,” said Iwane, who worked as an English teacher and volunteered as a PTA member at the school. “For me, that was like a stake in the heart. We’ve worked together, you trusted me, I entrusted my children to you, and now you’re telling me to suppress my research?”

Iwane tested food for a year before she and her husband decided it was time to relocate their family. After the radioactive gas leak at San Onofre, Iwane decided she was going to do everything she could to prevent a nuclear disaster at her new home.

“I’m just here by chance because I evacuated, and it’s an issue that’s close to my heart,” Iwane said. “I never actually did this until the meltdown, until I actually saw and met people who left Fukushima and came to my area in Japan.”

San Clemente Green Co-Founder Gary Headrick said Iwane’s story helped educate and inspire action from the public regarding the dangers associated with restarting the defective nuclear reactor at San Onofre.

“Over here, it’s sort of this abstract thing we’ve heard about,” said Headrick, who co-founded the group with his wife, Laurie Headrick, in 2007. “When someone who has gone through it comes and tells you about it and makes it all personal … you start realizing that can happen here.”

Although San Onofre is now closed, Iwane’s activist work is far from over. Safely decommissioning the plant is next on her list of priorities.

“Shutting down San Onofre is so wonderful, but our work has only just begun,” Iwane said. “Let’s try to decommission this plant so that we do not end up with a nuclear waste dump.”