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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

Ace Hoffman Is Tilting at 'Nofre

"Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, [those] hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them . . . for this is a righteous war, and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."

"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants, but windmills."

—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605

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

* * *

The Pacific Ocean gleams like liquid diamonds as I steer my Toyota up the 5 freeway at sunset under a clear, silvery, gloaming sky.

I'm headed home to San Clemente to meet with a modern-day Man of La Mancha (or, in this case, of nearby Carlsbad)—Ace Hoffman [1], a guy in the know about nuclear power, a defender of human life and the environment, a true grand tilter at mighty nuke atom-splitters. Ace's life mission: generally, to end mankind's use of nuclear power, which he equates to the 14th-century Black Plague in its destructive impact on human bodies and society.

"Males in the northern hemisphere are said to piss out about a million atoms of plutonium every DAY of their lives," Hoffman wrote for a Counterpunch article in 2007. "Just from one 1963 NASA space-probe accident."

More specifically, though, Ace wants to permanently close Southern California's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS)—or "Nuclear WASTE Generating Station," as he terms it.

"What," asks this contempo Don Quixote, "will we do with thousands of tons of lethal spent fuel sitting on that site for at least 300 more years, threatening our lives and livelihoods?"

Opposing Ace is SONGS' owner and operator, Southern California Edison (SCE), a Fortune 500 power goliath ($12.3 billion annual revenues, 20,000 employees) and state-protected energy behemoth. SCE is headquartered in Rosemead, east of downtown Los Angeles, a comfortable 62 miles from SONGS and a good 10 miles outside SCE's self-designated 50-mile "Ingestion Pathway Zone" (IPZ) specified for SONGS emergencies—in other words, Ground Zero. In 1996, SCE made itself the largest subsidiary of a holding company it calls Edison International. Slogan: "Life. Powered by Edison."

Reality: SCE failed early in the fission fest, way back in the mid-1950s. The company built the ill-fated Santa Susana Sodium Reactor Experimental (SRE) nuclear power plant near Moorpark in Ventura County. Owner Atomics International even fabricated plutonium fuel there. In 1959, the plant's reactors partially melted down, a California first. Fifty-four years later, the Old Susana site remains contaminated.

Edison moved on to build SONGS. In 1968, Unit 1, a Westinghouse pressurized water reactor (PWR) began operations. SCE built Units 2 and 3 in the 1970s (and in a portent of troubles to come, Bechtel Corporation, the nation's largest construction-and-engineering company, installed a 420-ton nuclear-reactor vessel backward). Unit 2 went online on Aug. 8, 1983, with Unit 3 following on April 1, 1984. They've been offline since Jan. 31, 2012, when a "leaking incident" damaged equipment and led to a release of radioactive steam into the environment.

Radiation entered the air, soil, beach, plants and water surrounding SONGS, just 8 goddamn miles from my fucking front door.

My family numbers among the 7.4 million people who live within that 50-mile SONGS IPZ. Welcome to the SoCal glow club, Long Beach, LA, Riverside and San Diego! Eat, drink and be wary.

But don't worry, advises SCE, which claims our biggest power facility has operated peacefully and "cleanly" ever since first fission, providing ratepayers with nearly 20 percent of SoCal's electricity while sparing everyone the deleterious effects of burning coal: tons of smog-producing pollutants and greenhouse-gas carbon emissions. SCE's unstated SONGS business-value proposition: nuclear pollution isn't nearly as bad as coal pollution and global warming.

Ace Hoffman perceives a more sinister scenario about his adversaries, who include SCE, which owns 78.2 percent of SONGS; Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), which owns 20 percent; and the city of Riverside, which owns 1.8 percent. "San Onofre is owned and operated by belligerent liars," Ace e-ranted to me. "They lie to each other, they lie to the media, they lie to the public, they lie to the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], and they lie to themselves, thinking 'a little radiation is safe' or even 'a little radiation is good for you.'"

Senator Barbara Boxer also doubts SCE management's veracity. The chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has called for a new investigation of SCE and a shutdown of SONGS based on information in a document from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which built the plan's faulty replacement steam generators, installed in 2010. According to Boxer, the document indicates that Edison and Mitsubishi were aware in advance of potential safety problems with the generators.

But SONGS survives in its South County haunt due entirely to SCE's political prowess and the Big Nuke propaganda machine. The heavily subsidized $33 billion nuclear-power industry is small but powerful because it's really just a money-losing beard for the military-industrial-congressional complex and its $56 billion-per-year U.S. nuclear-weapons programs. The commercial nuclear-power market was invented in the 1950s by the U.S. government to provide plutonium for nuclear warheads. Making electricity for consumers was just an (insane) excuse.

U.S. taxpayers mostly support the nuclear-power industry. In fact, Michele Boyd, legislative director of the nonprofit consumer-rights group Public Citizen's energy program, has called nuclear power a massive swindle of the American public put together by the federal government in collusion with ostensibly "for-profit" nuclear-plant operators. The heart of this fraud is the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, which artificially limits the amount of primary insurance that nuclear operators must carry—an uncalculated, indirect subsidy in terms of insurance premiums they don't have to pay.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Spent fuel rods are removed from reactors and placed in crowded (with other rods), 35-foot deep pools of water and allowed to cool down for five to 10 years before being moved into "dry cask" storage. These casks—SONGS hosts about four dozen—are 20 feet tall, 10 feet wide and weigh 100 tons, 15 tons of which is used reactor core assemblies.

Then the casks . . . sit, biding their smoldering time, of which they have plenty. SONGS has accumulated 2,000 tons to 4,000 tons of the vile stuff, and if it ever catches fire, it can explode and shoot potentially fatal debris into our air and water. SCE's take?

"The NRC has determined this storage technology is safe for at least 100 years. The best location for a central, U.S. nuclear-waste depository is a matter of continuing political debate. But there is settled science supporting the long-term safety of deep, geologic disposal."

Note how SCE has made SONGS' spent fuel a 2113 problem. And "settled" by whom? We've only been burying this junk since 1942, when the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place. Moreover, no permanent storage site exists for spent nuclear fuel. The feds reneged on promises to haul it away. And the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in August 2012 that declared, "Spent nuclear fuel . . . is one of the most hazardous substances created by humans."

The U.S. can't dispose of the nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel currently stored in 33 states from 104 reactors at 64 plants. It was supposed to go to a repository located deep under Nevada's Yucca Mountain ($10 billion down that hole to date), but Nevadans refuse to risk turning their state into a radioactive, nuclear cauldron. The GAO found that new facilities would take up to 40 years before they could accept spent fuel. Meanwhile, spent fuel stored onsite at commercial nuclear plants increases by about 2,000 metric tons annually.

For something with such a monumentally negative impact, uranium-pellet-filled fuel rods don't deliver much value—each produces energy for only six years, and according to SCE, nuclear plants use only 5 percent of the fuel's energy. It's not low-cost, clean energy—but it is wildly inefficient.

* * *

I speed through the winding emptiness of the 200-square-mile Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which owns the tract of land SONGS occupies. Oh, those jarheads . . .

Camp Pendleton emerged in 1942 when the U.S. government—reeling in panic from Pearl Harbor—essentially confiscated 122,798 acres of Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores from its owners and created the country's largest Marine Corps base. In May 1964, the Department of the Navy granted SCE a 60-year easement for use of the site to build and operate SONGS.

Construction of Units 2 and 3 spanned a decade, going beyond the budget by billions of dollars because of earthquake-related design revisions and regulatory delays. The final price at startup for the two reactors totaled $4.5 billion, according to the California Council on Science and Technology. The pricey corpses of both units' cores will fester onsite forever. After operating Unit 1 for 24 years, SCE decommissioned and dismantled it in 1992 because it didn't want to spend $125 million in required modifications. The old reactor remains onsite, cocooned in concrete and still as radioactive as hell.

When I phoned the Marines to ask about protecting the base's daytime population of 70,000, I was told to call SCE. Later, I did find a brochure on the base website explaining evacuation procedures should SONGS experience an emergency.

I zip through the unmanned California Highway Patrol-U.S. Border Patrol San Onofre traffic checkpoint, come up over a rise, and there it is: SONGS. It looms on my left, next to the Pacific Ocean, which backdrops the plant's familiar, 160-foot, twin, hemispherical, concrete containment towers. (Yeah, I know: They look like Hollywood bolt-on breast implants, but I'm not playin'.) The place is squat, gray and homely in a haute gauche, bleak-noir, industro-power-plant style, 45 years ancient and well past its "close by" date. In 2000, Edison wrangled license extensions to 2020. The containment structures for both units are made of 4.5-foot-thick reinforced concrete. Inside each structure is an 8-inch-thick steel reactor vessel that houses the reactor.

The incongruity of seeing this woeful monstrosity on that magnificent shore always stuns. An aged, "embrittled," crumbling relic of the U.S. government's 1950s and 1960s nuclear-power-plant-building mania, SONGS hunkers forlorn and ugly in a seismic fault zone near San Clemente's south end on 84 acres of beautiful beachfront . . . now irredeemably lost.

'Nofre's a defiled dragon's lair of nuclear detritus—the flow of the global-nuclear-waste stream dead-ended here, never to go away. But now it's lit up to make the domes, outbuildings, poles, pipes, wires, cyclone fence, brick security wall, et al., look bright and beguiling at dusk. Here's a house that knows how to pay a light bill.

Increasingly, though, there are fewer and fewer folks home, as the place empties out. In August 2012, SCE cut 730 employees, taking the plant workforce down to 1,500—job-loss hits to the local economy that will only continue.

Along with the domes, I can see turbines, outflow/intake pipes, a too-low sea wall, control-room areas, a switchyard, an emergency diesel generator room (all bunched up), water-storage tanks for the emergency cooling systems and, the BIG trouble here, spent-fuel pool areas and dry-storage casks. Trestles surfers and San Onofre State Beach campers see this gruesome sight every day, with little comprehension of its magnitude as an economic, ecological disaster.

SONGS squanders heat on an unimaginable scale, dissipating enough into the sky above the plant each day to warm a city for a year. A 1994 Friends of the Earth study showed that a nuke plant must operate for 18 years before realizing 1 net calorie of energy. The nuke never pays off.

'Nofre lays its worst punishments on the ocean. To cool the reactors, it sucks in 2 million gallons of ocean water every minute, 1.6 billion gallons each day—an intake equal to a lake-sized square mile of ocean 12 feet deep. This prodigious misuse of water devastates local sea life. The Sierra Club calls SONGS and its sister California nuke plant Diablo Canyon "Giant Fish Blenders." At San Onofre each year, 121 tons of midwater fish are entrained (sucked into the cooling system itself). Unit 3 alone annually entrains an average of more than 3.1 billion individual aquatic organisms.

SONGS is a major polluter. "The Radioactive Effluent and Environmental Reports for San Onofre Units 2 and 3, 2005-2011" reveals in-depth details about the plant's impact on the environment. It has state and federal permission to release its "radwaste" into the air and water. In 2010, Edison piped highly diluted radwaste into the ocean for 550 hours (while releasing numerous low-level radionuclides into the air for a total of 44 hours). Edison's documents provided to the NRC reveal that SONGS released 34 different radionuclides, including plutonium, strontium-90 and cesium-137, all extremely injurious to living tissue.

Then there are "accidents." In 2006, tritium reportedly leaked into the groundwater beneath San Onofre, prompting the temporary closure of one area drinking-water well.

And SONGS isn't such a great place to work. On March 2, 2010, the NRC sent SONGS managers a letter describing a "chilling effect" among plant employees who feared retaliation from management if they reported safety concerns.

San Onofre has a filthy physical environment, "full of dirt, trash, clutter, cigarette butts and unidentified tripping hazards," according to Bethann Chambers, wife of SONGS whistleblower James Chambers, who worked at Units 2 and 3. "The (work) culture at SONGS is sick," she wrote on Dec. 9, 2010, in a long online post titled "The Truth About San Onofre From the Wife of a Licensed Nuclear Reactor Operator."

"This is the best word to describe the toxic work environment at the plant," added Chambers, who characterized the SONGS workforce as "three-tiered"—a management "Good Old Boys Club" (because it includes very few women) at the top, a second tier of "Company Stooges" and a bottom tier of "Worker Bees."

The result, according to Chambers: "If the workers at the nuclear-power plant are afraid to raise concerns, then the health and safety of the public is in jeopardy."

In addition to the shutdown, 2012 brought SONGS more drama than a Kardashian-Olsen twins cage match. In January, an outside contractor who was leaning over to retrieve a flashlight while working near Unit 2's reactor pool lost his balance and fell in. He survived. In May, Edison revealed a case of flawed safety equipment and lax oversight regarding the reactors' emergency-backup generators. The next month, a routine NRC inspection of SONGS found "security deficiencies." In December, fearing possible "employee-related sabotage," SONGS officials began investigating why they found coolant mixed with oil in their safety equipment.

Imagine a delinquent 8-year-old behind the wheel of the 700 mph turbojet-propelled Fossett LSR hypercar packed tight with nuclear explosives, trying to set a world land-speed record, 24/7 for eternity. That's SONGS.

But none of the above forced the current shutdown. Dumb, doomed, double-domed SONGS has been closed for a year thanks to that " leaking incident," which involved heat-transfer tubes in the plant's Unit 3 nuclear-reactor steam generators. These convert heat from the reactor cores into steam to drive turbines and generate electricity. Tubes in a year-old, poorly designed, 65-foot tall, 640-ton steam generator ruptured.

SCE downplayed the shutdown "incident" in a June 7 press release last year. "Both SONGS units are currently safely shut down for inspections, analysis and testing. Unit 2 was taken out of service Jan. 9 for a planned outage. Unit 3 was safely taken offline Jan. 31 after station operators detected a leak in a steam-generator tube."

What actually took place was that several heat-transfer tubes, severely damaged by extended heavy vibration and denting, burst and vented hundreds of gallons of super-heated, highly pressurized, radioactive steam. Alarms sounded, and operators scrambled far into the next day before finally doing a "cold" shutdown of the entire system. They had to evacuate the turbine plant and surrounding areas and declare an "Alert" ("an event that could decrease the plant's level of safety," in SONGSspeak).

"Edison played fast and loose by making radical design changes and ducking the rules," said Kendra Ulrich, nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth. "The result was the most rapid breakdown of such replacement steam generators in the history of the U.S. nuclear industry. If Edison had followed the rules, an NRC license review would have found these glaring defects, and the lives of millions of people would not have been put at risk, nor would hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered."

Edison sees things differently. In June 2012, SCE executives claimed that the cause of what they call the "unexpected" tube-to-tube wear was "fluid elastic instability" or excessive tube vibration. That's like saying a decked prizefighter got knocked out by the canvas when his head hit it.

* * *

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.

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."

As I listen to Hoffman's surprisingly calm and measured responses, I keep waiting for the passionate flamethrower who sends those lit-up emails and posts those angry anti-nuker denunciations. But I'm not seeing or hearing any bold bitterness, harsh outbursts or rage against the nuke machine. Instead, here's a polite guy with a good sense of humor and an engineer's composed, analytical air. In conversation, Hoffman uses logic to examine a situation; he seems to appreciate and respect any displays of intelligence in his adversaries. He comes across as an ordinary man who just wants to help solve one of the planet's biggest problems.

Hoffman's demeanor is testing my Don Quixote comparison—no trace in this guy of the gaunt, slightly mad ascetic set on bringing order to a tumultuous world. I ask him what he thinks of the Don Quixote analogy.

He laughs. "Well, nuclear power plants aren't an imaginary enemy, but even so, the lance would be a laser and the horse a mountain bike. Other than that . . ." He trails off, smiling.

I pitched this story as an interview with Ace Hoffman, reigning champion of the fight against San Onofre, I tell him. Does he agree?

He laughs. "Reigning champion . . . champion of what? It's the team that is a hundred times more powerful than I ever was by myself, but besides that, we haven't actually won anything, so I'm the champion of nothing!"

I received no response from SCE's media department to my phone calls and email messages seeking comment about Hoffman and his SONGS-related activities. So I ask Hoffman instead: What do the folks at Edison think of you?

Another broad grin. "They say, 'We love you, Ace!'"

[1] Ace Hoffman changed his legal name several years ago, after the author already knew him. A correction was made to this story on Feb. 21, 2013.

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