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

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I cross under SONGS' overhead power lines that trail off into the hills, and in a 65-mph instant, I'm happily past the gnarly old plant and rolling toward San Clemente, beauty to 'Nofre's beast. I park in an unremarkable parking lot and head into our meeting place. I inhale the aromas of warm, delicious Mexican food being enjoyed by a noisy dinner-hour crowd. It's early for our meeting, so I grab a table in the back of the restaurant and order coffee. The stack of materials in my folder has a slick, four-color brochure from SCE titled "Emergency Preparedness Information for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS)."

SCE's emergency master plan? Listen for the sirens—a long, steady, continuous, oscillating, awful, blaring wail—sounding for two to five minutes each time, turn on the radio or TV (DO NOT call 911!), swallow potassium-iodide pills (which residents of San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano can get free of charge from those cities), and then head out into the monumental, immobile traffic jam that will be blocking the few roads out of town. Unwritten tips: abandon car, start walking, avoid airborne radioactive plume, head for desert as though the mad hermit namesake of 'Nofre, Onuphrius himself, don't return for 10,000 years.

The old man and the sea
Brendan Klein
The old man and the sea
Ace Hoffman at rest
Brendan Klein
Ace Hoffman at rest

I look over my notes on Hoffman: age 55, a Connecticut native, the son of professors, some college, an elopement with wife Sharon. He moved here in 1991, first setting eyes on San Onofre while driving south on the 5 freeway.

"I remember thinking, 'That's a nuclear reactor. What's it doing HERE?'" he wrote in an email.

He's still searching for the answer. For years, Hoffman has been studying California's energy issues. A computer programmer and software designer, he owns and operates the Animated Software Co., which specializes in educational software.

As he comes through the door, I recognize Hoffman from his online photo: a middle-aged engineer; 6 feet tall; 175 pounds; blue eyes; a days-old beard; short, brownish-blond hair sprinkled with gray and parted on the left. He's casually dressed in jeans and an open-collar cotton shirt. He arrives in the company of his petite, smiling wife and a man whom Hoffman introduces as Torgen Johnson of Solano Beach. The trio belongs to the DAB Safety Team, an anti-SONGS group that speaks out publicly against the plant.

"If you had to sum up your message to the people of Southern California, what would it be?" I ask.

"It's simple," Hoffman says, jabbing his fork above his plate for emphasis. "Nuclear power kills."

He looks around the room at the laughing, talking families eating their meals. "Thousands have already died from Chernobyl, and thousands will die from Fukushima, but their deaths are scattered in time and all over the planet, and so the 'health physicists' ignore those deaths, denying any connection to any nuclear accident," he continues. "But realistic data by highly qualified scientists, in study after study, proves the connection beyond doubt. So don't make San Onofre another Fukushima. San Onofre is shut down now. Let's keep it that way."

What's going on at SONGS?

"San Onofre is currently shut down because its steam generators are busted," Hoffman says. "But that's not all that's wrong." He begins ticking off some demerits: "Its fuel pools are full. It's in a tsunami inundation zone AND an earthquake zone. It's old and decrepit. Its employees are intimidated by management and falsify reports and are afraid to report safety problems. Management likewise has its back against the wall and is desperate to prove it can restart the reactors somehow, despite the engineering logic against it. Nobody wants to lose face or a job. Every state agency claims only the NRC can 'force' San Onofre to close, and the NRC has never met a nuclear power plant it didn't like."

What can ordinary people do about this?

"The citizens who don't want Fukushima USA to happen here are in a bind, that's for sure," he says. "But dry casks aren't the solution. Shutdown is the most important and only logical next step."

What compelling reasons does SCE have to keep the old place going?

"When San Onofre is operating, it's 'easy money' for SCE," Hoffman says. "The reactors, when operating, produce $1 million per day in revenue for their owners. That clouds their thinking. All for a bit of electricity, which is easily obtained in safer ways."

Security is always an issue at SONGS. The place sits right next to a major freeway. It's on the water. It's directly beneath the San Diego-LA airports' flight path. Two of the 9/11 al-Qaeda hijackers drove by on their way to the airport. I saw an ad for a security guard at the plant that required only a GED.

"Nuclear-power plants are likely to be targets of terrorist attacks in that they are considered a legitimate target of war as defined by the United States military," Hoffman adds. "We bombed power-generation systems in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Furthermore, we used nuclear weapons—depleted uranium—and caused widespread environmental damage. Lastly, every military scholar knows that the best way to cripple a force is to wound as many of the enemy as possible. Destroying San Onofre would do that. People would die, but slowly, and caregivers would be severely strained around the country from just one radiological catastrophe."

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