A debate between Peter de Jager and Russell D. Hoffman (part two)

Posted as part of Russell D. Hoffman's

Y2K Preparedness Web Site

Posted online September 22nd, 1999

To: Peter de Jager pdejager@year2000.com

From: "Russell D. Hoffman" rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com

Date: August 30th, 1999

Dear Mr. de Jager,

Thank you for your return email (shown below). I find it baffling. For one thing, it does not speak to many of the issues I addressed in my letter to you.

The possibility of the power grid going down somewhere in the world is a very real thing, if not in America, certainly other places around the world where virtually no Y2K work has been done at all, compared to here. There are 433 operating commercial nuclear power plants in the world. I have attached a quote from a U.S. government report regarding the need for offsite power.

The latest government reports certainly DO predict some level of disruption. Some level? Are they EXACTLY right about how much disruption there will be? Do they understand the orders-of-magnitude differences between a city not having lights for a few days (or weeks, or even years) and their nuclear plant melting down for lack of a working backup generator? Do you understand the difference? (What is your medical background?)

Also, although I stated that I have not worked on or in nuclear power plants, I didn't say I don't have a clue about what goes on inside them, I didn't say I haven't talked to engineers and scientists who have designed, built, and run them, and I certainly didn't mean to imply I'm looking at nuclear power plants as a "black box" with nothing but a mystery to me inside. Some of my best friends are ex-nuclear insiders.

Nuclear plants are made of components, Mr. de Jager. The same things that make up other technological marvels that DON'T contain billions of Curies of radioactive waste-in-waiting -- for it will all be rad waste soon enough, even if for a few decades first, it supplies expensive power or is part of a costly and yet (so far, with two early exceptions) unusable weapon. In fact, nuclear power plants are actually built out of the same components everything else is (plus some "hot", highly carcinogenic poisons). They are, in short, nothing more than a complex system of pumps, pipes, valves and vessels. And those are all things I am quite familiar with, along with the control systems for those devices.

The example I provided, which you clearly felt you had picked apart so easily, was merely offered as an example of a "system" which might not work even though the manufacturers of the components both claimed Y2K reliability. It's all about "systems", isn't it? You may be right that employees will find a way to overrule the security systems in this scenario, but personally, I find it frightening to think that on a day-to-day basis your average nuclear power plant security system can be compromised in five minutes as you claim (in your letter shown below) by people who arrived with no intent to break in at all when they got there.

Furthermore, the five minutes it might take to overrule the rule books, the security system, and the armed guards on the other side who might think you must be a terrorist (and maybe additional moments to find the keys to the pickup truck, or to get a jump start) is ample time for the sequence of events ending inevitably in a meltdown, to get beyond the recoverable stage. You don't need to be a nuclear engineer to read the official reports of close calls that have already occurred to know this is true! You only need to care about your life, your loved ones, and your land enough to want to protect it -- from anything that is not a truly necessary threat. The nukes are worthless, yet they pose the greatest threat to a clean earth the world has ever known. They do that every day, but the worst day of all is...

I think you are making a grave mistake because you have not given ANY reason for your confidence that meltdowns (not to mention accidental launches of nuclear missiles, the first one of which would probably be an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP)) simply won't happen come Y2K. But because of your confidence, I would be quite surprised to hear that you are personally recommending that America (or Canada) pressure Russia and other countries to install additional diesel generators at the nuclear power sites, each with several MONTHS supply of fuel (not just several days or weeks worth, as most currently have) to ensure that backup electricity is available at all times, come what may. And I'll just bet that you aren't recommending people purchase Potassium Iodide tablets, which they shouldn't have to purchase because the government should be giving them out (or at least stockpiling them locally) anyway. And -- most incomprehensible of all -- you aren't even trying to alert people to the fact that a lot of people who are much more familiar with the nuclear dangers than either you or I are (we both come from the programming side of things, although I have interviewed dozens of anti-nuclear scientists and engineers as well, whereas it certainly doesn't seem that you have done so, though in your letter you claimed some familiarity with some of the names) are giving some very strong warnings -- which you are ignoring for the world. You seem to claim your lack of fear comes from the fact that Dr. Caldicott is not a computer programmer and you are, and that she is not a nuclear engineer but rather a doctor by profession. Those are not specific complaints, and the idea that nuclear power is so complex that lay doctors and lawyers (and computer programmers) cannot understand it is ludicrous. (As an aside, most of the "secrets" they keep from the public concern past failures, not "trade secrets" they don't want the commies to get, or China or North Korea or whoever.) One must always be on the lookout for "vested interests", don't you think?

But where is your own moral authority to ignore Dr. Caldicott's warning?

If you look at your own "Doomsday 2000" article and simply insert the words "nuclear power" for "Y2K" you might understand what Dr. Caldicott and the others are objecting to and why their warnings should have been heeded long ago. The risks of Y2K are trivial in comparison to those of a nuclear meltdown (making the assumption for the moment that nuclear meltdowns are themselves an impossible consequence of Y2K).

Your view does not put things in perspective. A nuclear meltdown would be a thousand or even a million times worse than, say, Bhopal or Chernobyl (Chernobyl was "only" a very partial meltdown. People think it was a real full-blown meltdown, but it wasn't by any stretch of the imagination.) Tens of thousands -- probably hundreds of thousands -- have died already from Chernobyl and thyroid cancer rates in children who live around the plant are 10 times what they used to be before the accident, but it was only a trivial little accident on the scale of what nuclear meltdowns can become. And then there are the spent fuel ponds. What protection have they from Y2K? No one is even watching them most of the time, but just about every nuclear plant has at least one pool and the water in them must be constantly circulated with electric pumps to keep the nuclear waste from overheating and even exploding.

I hope you a beginning to see that you are shortchanging a lot of experts by denying this very real danger from Y2K.

You don't say anything in your letter to me about the dangers of an accidental nuclear war. But in fact, because of the EMP, the very first launch could be enough to devastate not just one major city in the U.S., but the whole country (and Canada and Mexico) in the same first few milliseconds (See quote from U. S. Government report, shown below). That you have not spoken about, only the nuclear power plant issue.

I hope you are prepared to reconsider your stand, because your voice is important and your views should be in line not just with what is most probable, but also with what the potential risks are of the worst things that MIGHT happen. If something is a thousand or a million times worse than the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, it ought to have a thousand or a million times more care and attention, don't you think? But do you really believe Union Carbide workers meant to screw up there, any more than a nuclear power plant operator in Russian or Pennsylvania or anywhere else would purposefully screw up? But one of these incidents has already happened, and the others very nearly happened. Yet you proclaim you have no additional worries regarding Y2K and nukes. It leads me to ask if you have lectured about Y2K to nuclear power plant owners, operators, licensors or licensees?

As a general rule, government and civilian oversight is a great thing, Mr. de Jager, and I believe in it. But simply stating that you have spoken to better experts than I have spoken to, doesn't prove to me, and I doubt it proves to many people at all, frankly, that you truly have wrestled with this problem. If you had, why didn't your letter reference your own prior statements specifically about nuclear power, and who the sources for those statements were so I can contact those people myself?

But as good as "oversight" is, there is another way to protect oneself from danger: One can simply stop doing the dangerous thing. That is what I advocate in this case because I am convinced the risks far exceed the benefits. You have presented absolutely nothing to change that view, and have not even given any real defense of the Y2K issue alone, let along the other nuclear issues you dismiss as well.

When playing games of chance, the "odds" are very important but the worst a bad guess can cost you is your money. But when playing with billions and billions of potentially lethal doses of the most carcinogenic substances in the world, mere guesswork is not sufficient. There must be an accurate assessment of the size of the danger, as well of the likelihood.

It's true, every day we face the possibility of a nuclear meltdown or even an accidental (or purposeful) nuclear war. But that does not mean that Y2K does not severely heighten that danger. Dr. Caldicott outlined some very reasonable steps governments should be urged to take, and it truly amazes me that you don't want to add your voice to those urging caution and reason.

You say at the end of your "sig" file: "To embrace the future, let go of the past." That is true -- and many people in the nuclear industry still think of themselves as the ultimate in "high tech". You and I, with our decades of experience in a much more exciting "high tech" industry, should know better. Nuclear power is a dying breed. It has not proven to be a cost-effective producer of electricity, it has created what is apparently an unsolvable waste problem, and as for the Cold War weapons -- they have NOT provided us with the security we think they have -- certainly that security did not come from having 30,000 such weapons! (Wouldn't a dozen, or a hundred, or maybe, 1,000 such weapons have been ample? In fact, we've "tested" more than that in the atmosphere (causing millions of cancers worldwide).)

I think it's all a matter of putting things into proper perspective, and I think that's where you are failing to perform your duties to society properly, as a leading spokesperson regarding the Y2K issue.

Please let me know what professional connection (if any) you have to the nuclear industry, nuclear weapons, the defense industry, or the military. I'm frankly wondering if such connections have warped your perspective. Yours would not be the first.

I have interspersed additional comments within your letter to me, and attached a few relevant items. I strongly recommend you make immediate contact with some of the nuclear experts who can discuss the severity of a potential accident, and help them apply the realities of Y2K probabilities and risk assessments to what they have to say anyway about the foolishness of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Some names of people you might contact are included in the comments interspersed below. A key contact to get hold of them all would be investigative journalist (and practically a computer neophyte) Karl Grossman .

I hope you will be deciding to helping us ring the bell but if not, I do want to end by daring you to publish all this correspondence among your own newsletter subscribers, so that if ANY of them can answer my charges, they may do so. I will certainly be publishing it in mine, and we will all await your response.


Russell D. Hoffman
Concerned citizen
Carlsbad, California

Attachments: A reprinted article from my own newsletter, a link and beginning and ending portions of an article that came in this morning which is very timely to our discussion, and a quote from The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (Air Force Pamphlet 136-1-3, Department of the Air Force, Washington, D. C. April, 1962), with comments.

----- ATTACHMENT #1 -----


(5) Nuclear power plants need offsite power! (reprinted from newsletter #132):

We have warned about the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) which occurs from a nuclear weapons explosion and which can cover the entire United States if exploded above our heads. We have tried to describe what such a blast would do to America, especially to her nuclear power plants. Here is what the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own documents say about the need for offsite power to keep a nuclear power plant running -- and this is without the added trouble of all the pumps and everything else in the power plant not functioning because of the damage from the EMP.


Evaluation of Loss of Offsite Power Events at Nuclear Power Plants: 1980 - 1996
Manuscript Completed: June 1998
Date Published: November, 1998
Prepared by: C. L. Atwood, D. L. Kelly, F. M. Marshall, D. A. Prawdzik, J. W. Stetkar
Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory
Lockheed Martin Idaho Technologies Company
Idaho Falls ID 83415-3129
Prepared for
Safety Programs Division
Office for Analysis and Evaluation of Operational Data
U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001
NRC Job Code E8247

----- (END OF TITLE) -----


It is recognized that the availability of alternating current (AC) power to commercial nuclear power plants is essential for safe operations and recovery. Unavailability of AC power can have a major negative impact on a power plant's ability to achieve and maintain a safe shutdown condition....

----- END OF CLIP FROM: NUREG/CR-5496 INEEL/EXT-97-00887 -----

The entire rest of the study appears to be utterly useless. It says, in short, we ain't seen nothin' yet, and gives various "precise" odds regarding how close we've come. Drawn out to three, or to a hundred decimal places, nuclear power plants are vulnerable to Y2K, EMP, terrorists, airplane crashes, space debris, operator error, pump failure, generator failure, poor design, and not to mention -- if they ever had to pay a dime on a dollar for the storage of the waste they generate, they would be out of business tomorrow.

-- russell d. hoffman

----- END OF ATTACHMENT #1 -----



Saturday, August 28, 1999

26/08 - Safety of nuclear power plants questioned


The safety of Britain's nuclear power plants could be jeopardised by the Y2K Bug, according to an alarming report just released.

The report, commissioned BY Greenpeace and written by nuclear engineer John Large, raises serious doubts over the industry's Y2K preparations, not just in the UK, but world-wide.


----- END OF ATTACHMENT #2 -----

Note that the article also quotes British Y2K campaigner Paul Swann (pswann@easynet.co.uk) who can probably lead you to all the technical information you might need to make an informed decision.

----- ATTACHMENT #3: -----

From: The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (Air Force Pamphlet 136-1-3, Department of the Air Force, Washington, D. C. April, 1962)

on page 505, paragraph 10.09 is a description of the distances this pulse can travel:

"The electromagnetic signal, as detected at a range of a hundred miles or so, thus consists of a continuous spectrum with most of its energy distributed about a median frequency (10 to 15 kilocycles per second) which is related inversely to the yield. At much longer distances, of many hundreds or thousands of miles, the form and spectrum of the pulse are determined largely by the characteristics of the medium of propagation, i.e., the "duct" between surface of the earth and the D- and E-region of the ionosphere."

(These regions are described in later paragraphs (10.19 and 10.20) as being around 40-50 miles high (D-) and 50-80 miles high (E-region), varying by time of year and many other conditions.)

That was written in 1962 and the effect on computer equipment of the EMP was not a factor. For one thing the computer equipment available back then was not as delicate as today's wondrous systems. For another, there were only a few thousand computers in the world anyway. Now of course, there are literally BILLIONS of CPUs in the world, controlling hospital equipment, cars, mechanical pumps and so forth. All are vulnerable to the effects of an EMP, whether launched purposefully, or accidentally because of some Y2K-related false signal of an incoming attack (similar false signals have occurred before, even without the Y2K added danger.)

Adding Y2K to what are already grave dangers doesn't make them any LESS grave, Mr. de Jager! It is in everyone's interest to consider these problems, TOGETHER, not as separate issues!

For vastly more information about the EMP effects, I have written several newsletters, and SPACE NEWS reported on Congressional Hearings which were held earlier this year. The SPACE NEWS article made it quite clear that the effect is a lot like a lightening strike -- but all over the place!

You completely ignored this additional danger in your response to me, but I did mention it in my letter to you. As with the danger of meltdowns from power grid failures, so to, these are cumulative dangers all programmers should concern themselves with TOGETHER, especially since it's our beloved computers that would be destroyed.

----- END OF ATTACHMENT #3 -----


At 11:16 AM 8/29/99 -0500, Peter de Jager wrote:

Nearly everything runs on computers nowadays, from parts supply programs to payroll to security, and all sorts of equipment talks to all sorts of other equipment. Example: What if a nuke plant's card-entry security program has been tested and works fine after Y2K according to the manufacturer, but in actual operation it relies on the company's payroll program for a final check of valid cards, and the payroll programs works too (according to the developer) but the two programs don't "work" quite the same way after Y2K, each having implemented a different version of the various "Y2K fixes" that are available? Then what happens? The personnel cannot get into the building!

And then we would do what? I doubt if we would all gather around the outside of the building and wring our hands in fear and dismay waiting for the building to explode... I think, correct me if I'm wrong... that it would take us about 5 minutes to decide that the system was experiencing a problem and then force the doors open... somehow... perhaps by driving a Ford Pickup truck through the 'reluctant doors'


Not really. This is answered in detail above. What you are saying is that the world might end up having to be saved (if we are unlucky, but not too unlucky) by a Ford Pickup being driven through "reluctant doors". I think this indicates you've been watching too many disaster flicks.

What I am seeing people do is pile 'probable event' upon 'probable event' and come to the conclusion that total failure is inevitable rather than unlikely.

Part of risk analysis is to balance potential consequences versus costs and benefits, versus probabilities. None of these factors exist in a vacuum. No one I know has claimed that these events are "probable" and I DEFY YOU to present such a person to me! The above statement you have made is in fact disingenuous because if you aren't trying to imply that *I* have described a nuclear power plant failure as "probable" (which I have not said), who in the world are you talking about?

I will admit there are risks...

A mere admission here is contrary to everything else you have said, where you have denied the risk utterly. If this sentence is true, if you really "admit there are risks", then I challenge you to show the world that you are fully aware of the consequences of those risks, not just their "probability of occurrence" which is at best, only half the battle. (And do tell us also, how you KNOW the probabilities in the first place!)

but you and others seem to ignore, or at least discount the value of some information.

1) A tremendous amount of effort has been expended to avoid Y2K problems in all industries. including the Nuclear industry.

In talking about parts of your letter with a world-famous scientist (listed in Marquis Who's Who many times) who taught statistics for nearly 50 years, ending at Bryn Mawr University where he is now a Professor Emeritus (namely my father, who is not a computer programmer), I was reminded of what the problem with what you just said is, namely, that "a tremendous amount of effort" actually is not much cause for complacency. The very necessity of all that effort (and the 10s of thousands of lines of code that have been changed along the way) is reason enough to wonder if every "fix" was properly tested!

2) Nothing has been found yet (despite this huge investing in the search to find something) which would have disrupted power supply.

Strange use of tenses but who am I to talk about grammar? Anyway, the fact is, Y2K is 123 days and about nine hours away according to the countdown calender at your own web site. And again you should remember the "vested interests" involved in this testing and search for "something". I'm not sure what they are looking for exactly, but they are NOT looking for good reasons to shut the nukes down. After all, we have plenty of those already from the people such as the scientists I have spoken to myself, and thousands of others -- if they were looking in earnest for the factors one needs to realize that nukes don't provide security or energy in a safe and cost-effective way, they would have shut them down a long time ago (or never built them in the first place).

3) We are finally aware of the Y2K threat and despite 1) and 2) will still be hovering over control panels, shut off switchs, etc. etc. in case something goes wrong.

There have been numerous "near misses" in the nuclear industry already. Can you promise the phones will all work? Can you promise that some nuclear power plant in some foreign country somewhere won't urgently need the expertise of our own Department of Energy staff, who presumably are the best in the world and would not hesitate to help others in need, but when some nuclear operator calls for help a few minutes after midnight, 1/1/2000, what happens if the phone lines somewhere don't work, or the Internet is down, or the DoE "expert" can't get the needed information off the computer, perhaps because of an EMP burst which occurred thousands of miles away, or some other factor. What if 50 nuclear plants are calling to speak urgently with 49 experts? Just for the record, I'm not saying any of these scenarios is "likely" since you seem to misinterpret the mention of even remote possibilities as talk of "probable failures" instead.

What I am saying, is that there is NO PROOF which any reasonable person should accept which shows that the nuclear power plants are sufficiently protected (though you are welcome to try to show me some) from Y2K and other dangers. That is why we must shut the nuclear plants down NOW to begin the cooling process. Doing so NOW would buy precious minutes come Y2K if something starts to go seriously wrong. America can afford to lose 15% of its electrical energy sources overnight, I doubt it would cripple us, and Canada would lose even less, would they not? Those number are not big enough to pretend it is a vital source of power. And we don't need 30,000 nuclear warheads, either!

Here;s a question I continue to ask of myself and others... given the above... is the level of concern being demonstrated appropriate to the remaining level of risk? I believe it is, yourself and others don't.

What is your medical background for making such a claim? What is your idea of the "demonstrated" level of concern? I have seen NO CONCERN AT ALL from government officials here in the United States. I see NO CONCERN at all from you either! If as you say you believe there has been enough concern, then how come your web site doesn't at least link to documents showing us just what has been done in the nuclear arena specifically? Instead your web site ignores the very danger which has the ability to do the greatest harm. Why? Why don't you at least publish the documents that have assured YOU that the nuclear plants -- all 433 of them, all over the world (plus the military ones) are safe?

You state repeatedly that you have not worked in the Nuclear industry... Others have. With no disrespect to yourself I will listen more closely to someone who has worked in the industry than to one who has not (When I'm ill I go to a Doctor, not a pharmacist)

This is an interesting example, because research has repeatedly shown that the pharmacist is responsible for NUMEROUS corrections to dangerous dosages and combinations of drugs which had been erroneously prescribed by the doctors!

There are many angles to this issue, Mr. de Jager, and if you want to put all the pieces of the puzzle together in the proper order, you better understand the relative sizes, not JUST the relative frequency of the problem. It's true that nuclear power plants can melt down today as well as on Y2K. That is no reason not to oppose them all the more because of the additional risks which you deny, yet which are in fact, undeniable to all reasonable persons I have met, and if you have an "expert" in the nuclear industry who is willing and able to prove me wrong, let him or her step forward.

In addition to Dr. Caldicott, here is a brief and incomplete list of experts I have been in contact with, and in most instances spoken to extensively, about the dangers of nuclear power in general:

Dr John W. Gofman, M. D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Medical Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Gofman is the co-discoverer of Uranium-233 and proved its fissionability, subsequently he developed several of the first methods for isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project (the nuclear bomb effort, during World War Two). Dr. Gofman's credentials are extensive in both medicine and physics and we have spoken about the dangers of nuclear power in general on a number of occasions, though not about the Y2K bug and its connection (nor have I talked about that with these other scientists. Remember, you and I are the programmers, not them (and you were quite explicit that you are not disrespecting my professional skills.)

The late Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, known as "the father of health physics" which is the study of radiation dangers. Dr. Morgan and I spoke on several occasions in 1997 regarding the dangers of low level radiation especially from plutonium.

Dr. Ernest Sternglass, Professor Emeritus of Radiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Jay Gould, Director, Radiation and Public Health Project, New York.

Dr. Ross Wilcock, Physicians for Global Survival, Canada.

Dr. Horst Poehler, retired IEEE member, NASA contract engineer.

Dr. Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics, New York University

Jack Shannon, who was responsible for the design of the most popular reactor in the U. S. Navy (the D2G).

And many others. You are absolutely right; these are not Y2K experts, though you can certainly contact them and ask them if Y2K makes any of them feel MORE secure about nuclear power! Of course the fact is, 124 days before Y2K, NONE OF US are "experts" on the subject -- only theorists. If you can show me a "Y2K expert" who ALSO has the nuclear-related credentials each of these people have, I would be delighted to interview them.

I am well familiar will all the individuals you cite as references...

All of them? (This list is of course new to you since you wrote those words.) Have you interviewed them and heard them out on the issue of whether we should close down the nukes even without the added impetus of a Y2K-related potential disaster? Which anti-nuclear experts have you personally interviewed? Name two. Okay, name one at least.

many of them were always concerned about Nuclear power long before Y2K came up...concern about Nuclear power is always admirable...

What are you saying here? That you are normally anti-nuclear, but regarding Y2K you are ambivalent? That you are normally in support of a concern for the dangers of nuclear power, but you don't know anything about the health aspects yourself (I see nothing that would indicate otherwise in your bio, and again ask you to provide me with information about any connection you might have to the nuclear industry.) Frankly this statement ("concern about Nuclear power is always admirable") appears to me to be just about the most hollow and disingenuous anti-nuclear statement I have ever heard in my life -- if indeed, it's anti-nuclear at all. If you really mean "always", which is what you said -- then NOW is certainly the time for YOUR VOICE to be added to those who are speaking out! But instead what have you done? For some reason you are shutting down the Y2K-nuclear debate when you should be advocating shutting down the nukes and disarming the missiles instead. I think, Mr. Peter de Jager, that you are a self -appointed spokesperson for foolish complacency. And again, your idea of "admirable concern" does not address the dangers of an accidental nuclear war, even without an EMP to start it off.

we have enough examples to justity a certain level of concern BUT I suspect that some of them (it shows in their writing) have zero real knowledge of Y2K... but are using it merely to further their pre-existing goals and objectives.

I strongly suspect this would be a libelous statement if you had the courage to say who you are talking about.

As such they add nothing new to the debate.

I understand from your bio that you manage a Y2K mailing list. I challenge you to put our entire correspondence on it (as I will do on mine). Let's see how good your collection of experts are, and how properly they can respond to my charges and those of the others who are actively working on this issue. I'm willing to stand by my words even as I pray that nothing will happen come Y2K. But it is not wise to consider praying to be sufficient protection or preparation. It should, in fact, be the final step after all other reasonable steps have been actively pursued.

Yours truly
Peter de Jager

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+------- To embrace the Future .... Let go of the Past ----------+



Russell D. Hoffman
Carlsbad, California
August 29th, 1999

"To embrace the future, build for safety and let go of the dogmas of the past -- such as the idea that nukes are 'high tech'. They aren't. Our beloved Internet is 'high tech' and I await your speedy response through it."

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