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Ace Hoffman Is Tilting at 'Nofre

The anti-nuke activist has spent years fighting the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Now, the impossible is on his horizon: its permanent shutdown

Small wonder that SCE writes on its website, "Nuclear energy continues to play an important role in providing low-cost, clean energy."

True, if by "low-cost," it means extraordinarily expensive, and by "clean," it means a highly contaminated fuel that can go kablooey at any moment.

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Ace Hoffman at work
Brendan Klein
Ace Hoffman at work

The prospect of potential disaster at my own uranium-drenched, neighborhood, nuke plant roils my mind about SONGS—and Chernobyl and Fukushima and Three Mile Island—as I head north through the gathering darkness for my meeting with Hoffman.

I began corresponding with him following my 1999 Weekly article "The Death Ray," about the dynamic area at the San Diego-Orange County border and its secretive military-industrial complex industry in the badlands east of San Clemente. I mentioned San Onofre as a freakish element of what I call "The Valley of the Weird." As I take a closer look at SONGS, there's no better plant tour guide than Hoffman.

A plethora of Orange County and San Diego groups has sprung up to fight SONGS over the years—the most active include Don Leichtling's Decommission San Onofre, Gary and Laurie Headrick's San Clemente Green, Gene Stone's Residents for a Safe Environment (ROSE), Donna Gilmore's San Onofre Safety, and Ray Lutz's Citizens Oversight Projects (COPs). But it's Hoffman who has captured the public's imagination. NASA's 1997 launch to Saturn of its Cassini-Huygens robotic orbiter powered by 72 pounds of plutonium-238 motivated him to graduate from mere letter-writing to local San Diego-area newspapers to loud activism. And then in 2001, on the same day that SCE told the media that activists such as Hoffman "don't understand the laws of physics," workers at the SONGS plant, in an apparent failure to comprehend the laws of gravity, dropped an 80,000-pound crane.

"The comment and the crane were the downfall of SanO, which became my sole focus," recalls Hoffman. "Having fought a planetary attack by NASA, I decided to follow the 'think global, act local' creed and concentrate my activities on shutting down the plant. That was more than a million pounds of nuke waste ago."

In 2008, Hoffman was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Because he never smoked, he suspected radiation as the cause. He decided to make a contribution of the knowledge about fighting nuclear power he had accumulated during 40 years of anti-nuke research, publishing what many in the movement rank among the most important and accessible textbooks of the Nuclear Age, The Code Killers: Why DNA and ionizing radiation are a dangerous mix . . . An expose of the nuclear industry. You can buy it from his frequently updated blog, Ace Hoffman's Nuclear Failures Report (acehoffman.blogspot.com).

Hoffman's thesis: nuclear-power plants produce immensely damaging ionizing radiation (from gamma rays and the alpha or beta particles emitted by decaying radioactive elements), which emits enough energy to break countless chemical bonds in the human body's 50 trillion to 100 trillion cells. Exposure to ionizing radiation can alter cell DNA, which expresses as birth defects and cancer. According to Hoffman, ubiquitous nuke plants and their radioactive output—the byproducts of uranium atomic fission—wreak havoc on bodies, destroying our tissues, organs and bones, sickening and killing us.

He's no desk-bound academic. His book is a polemic to employ as a weapon in the battle against nuclear power. As such, it places the author squarely in the middle of an ever-expanding, national, anti-nuke movement, one in which he's become a sort of Cassandra: Last year, SONGS was shut down due to "the leaking incident." For Hoffman, what began with writing letters to the editor and providing the lone voice of opposition at regulatory meetings has become a "storm of activism," as increasing numbers people seek him out to learn about the dangers of nuclear power, in general, and, in particular, the truth about San Onofre.

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The junior Einsteins who run dumps such as SONGS are brilliant at controlling nuclear fission and making water really, REALLY HOT, enough to spin wheels and make electricity. From there, though, even they will admit to utter cluelessness.

"Radioactive decay is not triggered . . . and therefore, science does not know how to control it," explains Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR). "We have no mechanism for speeding up, slowing down, starting or stopping radioactive decay. That's why radioactive wastes are such an enormous problem. If radioactive particles escape into the environment and enter the human body, they destroy cells. It's like throwing a grenade into a computer."

According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, nuclear fuel is "dirty," dangerous and deadly throughout its life cycle—mining, refining, purifying, using and burying. The core of a nuclear reactor contains both water and assemblies of fuel rods clad in zirconium and containing ceramic pellets of uranium-235-enriched nuclear fuel. This fuel is bombarded with neutrons to set off controlled nuclear reactions. These reactions super-heat the water, creating 550-degree Fahrenheit steam, which powers a turbine, generating electricity.

Unfortunately for all life on Earth, this process also creates poisons—uranium's hellish bastard "daughters." The approximate half-lives of some of the isotopes in spent nuclear fuel: strontium-90, 28 years; cesium-137, 30 years; plutonium-239, 24,000 years; cesium-135, 2.3 million years; iodine-129, 15.7 million years. The spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor are the most radioactive of all nuclear wastes, giving off 99 percent of the total radiation. This waste requires isolation from our ecosystem for 10,000 to 100,000 years before it sufficiently deteriorates due to natural radioactivity.

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