Vulnerability issues at San Onofre -- with terrorists in our midst, should I have posted my "25 simple ways" document online?

To:,   "Barbara Boxer, Senator (CA, D)" <>,,
From: "Russell D. Hoffman" <>
Subject: Vulnerability issues at San Onofre -- with terrorists in our midst, should I have posted my "25 simple ways" document online?
Date: October 11th, 2001

Subject: Vulnerability issues at San Onofre -- with terrorists in our midst, should I have posted my "25 simple ways" document online?

From: Russell D. Hoffman, Concerned Citizen, Carlsbad, CA

Some people have expressed concerns about my having posted on the Internet my essay, "25 simple ways terrorists could destroy San Onofre Nuclear (Waste) Generating Station, kill millions of people, and destroy the land for hundreds of thousands of years, for under about $100,000.00 and with less than 20 people."  The essay is available at the following URL:

There are about 430 commercial nuclear power plants around the world and at least that many military reactors. THOSE are the real dangers!  I find it inconceivable that I could have come up with anything that terrorists couldn't think of.  The problem is that we aren't protecting ourselves against these obvious threats, not that I created a list of 25 of those threats.  I created that list in one afternoon, to try to point out the vulnerabilities we are permitting in our midst.  Any actual terrorist plan would be based on the strengths of the available team members and the weaponry they can acquire.  But they have plenty of choices if they want to attack a nuke.

That is why it is so important that we admit how many different threats there really are.  Terrorist attacks are often carefully-designed operations which use easily-obtainable weaponry.  Success is usually determined by the quality of the preparations and the ruthlessness of the participants.  Two words to remember: Box cutters.

The point of my list of some of San Onofre's many vulnerabilities is to prove, unequivocally, that San Onofre needs to be shut down.  It WILL be shut down eventually, by hook or by crook.  If the world decides to shut down all the nukes, perhaps there would be no point in publishing the list.  But even if we closed the nukes and lived in peace for 1000 years, sooner or later a new generation of fools will come along who will have access to such terrifyingly destructive forces as Southern California Edison now controls, and society will once again need to be warned of the dangers.  Who will sound the warning if those who right now are in the midst of a global madness do not try to leave a record of their realizations?

NOT talking about these things is by far the most dangerous thing.  Society should have talked about all these issues thoroughly back in the 1950's.  Had they done so, they would surely have discarded the nuclear option as too hazardous, and instead built an energy system based on windmills, hydroelectric dams, geothermal plants, etc.. People tried to recommend that course, but they were ignored.

Large, fast jets have existed for half a century.  So how could the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have managed to never have calculated the effect of one of the thousands of flights each day crashing into a nuclear power plant?

The answer is that the NRC simply ignored everything that they realized was impossible to protect against.  That's not the same as missing it entirely.

For decades citizens have been asking the NRC, and before them the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), about the dangers of airplane strikes.  These citizens were ignored.  There are thousands of ways a terrorist can successfully attack a nuke.  My list barely scratched the surface.  However, IF that list terrifies anyone, they are being reasonable.  They should contact our elected officials, or San Onofre's licensee, Southern California Edison, and demand the plant be closed immediately and permanently.  True, even if we close the nukes, we will still have a horrific nuclear waste problem to deal with.  But that's better than an EVER-GROWING horrific nuclear waste problem, which is what we have now.

The media still dutifully tells us that 20% of our power is produced by nukes, when in fact it's at most about 18% of our electricity (14.6% in California, according to state officials) and only about 7% of America's total energy use.  The Feds tell us (through the media) that ALL power facilities are vulnerable.  We know that, but we also know that an attack at a coal-fired plant is only going to be a temporary problem.  It won't kill millions and it won't lay waste to thousands of square miles for hundreds of millennia.  There would be no general evacuation.  A 100%-successful attack on a coal plant would be many orders of magnitude less significant than a 1%-successful attack on a nuke.

The #1 form of protection the NRC uses is called dumb luck.  It's not enough.

A few months before the 9-11 attack I talked to Charles Marschall, Region IV inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and asked him about what would happen if a 747 crashed into a nuke plant.  He assured me the plants were safe from that.  I asked him to put it in writing.  He refused.  In any event, his assurances were utterly hollow, but I had no power to require him to tell me the truth.  I still don't have any such power (I wonder how many NRC officials are thankful for that?), but later circumstances caused the public to demand the truth on that one topic, and, after lying at first, the truth came out. Nuclear power plants could NOT survive an air strike such as we saw on September 11th.  Some news stations still report it as "some nuclear power plants might not survive" but that's not the reality.  Nuclear power plants are extremely vulnerable.  Any other claim is a lie.

Before Cassini was launched I warned against it.  Less than a year later a similar launch vehicle exploded 43 seconds into launch, proving my arguments were entirely correct.  I argued against using Earth for a gravitational flyby for Cassini.  A month after the flyby, a similar maneuver of a space probe, an "orbital insertion", crashed into Mars because of a weight translation error between kilos and pounds.  Either of these accidents could have happened with Cassini and its 72.3 pounds of plutonium 238 dioxide -- over 400,000 Curies!

There must have been at least 1000 other different warnings, too -- about nuclear subs, ships, bombs, listening devices, D.U. weapons, recycled metals, leaky waste dumps, etc. included in the 253 issues of the STOP CASSINI newsletter and other documents I've written, along with the main thrusts -- stopping Cassini, closing San Onofre, etc..  The "powers that be" never listened to any of those, and a million other activists could tell you the same thing: Zero progress, regardless of the validity of their arguments.  Period.  We have built a system in America by which good science can be silenced by greed, and nowhere is the effect of this system more deadly than in the nuclear industry.

The vast majority of the public doesn't know enough about the issues.  Also, there is a significant media campaign against the "anti-nuclear" position (that is, the "reasonable" position) which must be overcome.

The government claims they are working hard to protect us, but in fact they are ignoring most vulnerabilities.  In what hopefully is a tipping point, last Thursday (October 4th, 2001) Russell Wise, senior allegations coordinator at the NRC, called me and told me the NRC is reading my emails (finally, after 30 years of activism on my part).  But when are we switching to renewables?  When are we shutting the nukes down permanently?  When are we admitting that Nevadans will never permit Yucca Mountain to open (and nor should they)?  These are no longer debatable issues.  They are urgent matters of the utmost importance to society.  And yet we STILL do nothing, even after 9-11's wake-up call, and all the talk in the media which followed, about how we can't possibly stop every terrorist, so we have to be prepared.

The day after Mr. Wise's phone call, my local paper ran two front-page articles about nuclear waste.  In one, Breck Henderson, an NRC spokesperson, talking about terrorism such as we saw on 9-11, said: "Our U.S. military is where you turn for protection from things like that."  What a cop-out!   The NRC does not even attempt to protect us from acts of war, and we are told to turn to the U.S. Military!  But they are off fighting a war in Afghanistan, sowing the inevitable seeds of still further hatred -- or as one security official put it recently, we have a "100%" chance of terrorist acts in America because of the military action going on right now in Afghanistan.

I've tried to turn to the military.  It didn't do a bit of good.  For example, I called the U.S. Navy in Washington, DC regarding nuclear aircraft carriers, asking them why even use them, considering that they just convey the planes from point A to point B, which a non-nuclear aircraft carrier could do just as well, and both types have to be resupplied with jet fuel, ammo, food, etc. and both types have to travel with a fleet?  Even our own General Accounting Office (GAO) had determined that the non-nuclear option would be cheaper and could go more places because many countries have (wisely) banned nuclear ships from their harbors.  (Additionally, the GAO assessment used a typical current-generation conventional propulsion system for their comparison, which was unfair because conventional systems could be vastly improved, especially if they got the sort of funding that nuclear propulsion systems research gets.)

So why use nuclear aircraft carriers?  You know what the Navy guy said?  He told me that since Congress authorized the money for them, the Navy is going to take the nuclear carriers.  It was as simple as that to them.

But it's not as simple as that to society, which has to deal with the nuclear waste and the threat of accidental dispersal of the nuclear material throughout its life cycle of about a million years.  (This cost was virtually ignored in the GAO report.  Had it been properly considered, the report's results would have been even stronger.  The consequences of failure (for instance, a destroyed nuclear carrier in somebody's harbor (maybe ours)) were also not considered.)  Where IS all that waste, anyway?  In your backyard, or mine?

If the military is supposed to protect the commercial nuclear power plants (which they are not doing and cannot do no matter how hard they try), the first step would be to force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut the plants down.  But the military hasn't done that -- why not?  Probably because they see protecting the civilian nuclear power plants as strictly a civilian operation, despite Breck Henderson's claims.  After all, if the military felt it was their responsibility, they wouldn't leave private guard services in charge of security at the plants!  No private or government civilian organization in America has the firepower necessary to defend the plants, or even just to hold off until the calvary arrives.

When San Onofre had a fire in February, 2001 the local (San Clemente, CA) fire department ARGUED with the plant operators for about 15 minutes about how to put out the fire!  Finally the firefighters were allowed to do what they knew needed to be done, but not before over one hundred million dollars in damage was done to the plant, resulting in a four-month outage.

During a terrorist firefight, there wouldn't be time for such discussions.

If the military really understood that their protection is ultimately expected (as indicated by Breck Henderson), and if they understood how rapidly a threat can develop at a nuclear power plant (in an instant), and most of all, if they understood that protecting the nuclear sites is much more important than protecting anything else, then they would be at all the sites now, in full force, setting up perimeters, determining fields of fire and likely approach routes, setting up anti-aircraft batteries, they'd have soldiers stationed outside the control room, etc. etc..

It would be enormously expensive.  And unquestionably an imperfect defense anyway.  But anything less is bound to fail.  And while such proactive steps are impossible to do at every power plant, every refinery, every chemical plant, and along every power line, nevertheless the nuclear sites need nothing less, because their destruction would be many orders of magnitude more catastrophic than the destruction of those other sites would be.

But in addition to terrorism, tsunamis threaten coastal reactors every day.  Earthquakes can happen virtually anywhere, and tornados and many other things too.  The government needs to get realistic about the potential costs versus the small benefit we get from nuclear.  And so does everyone else.  Explosions and fires at San Onofre this year didn't faze people.  What will?  The local enviro org (EHC) came out with a meek and useless statement a few weeks ago, after months and years of pleading (and prodding) by me and other local activists.  EHC has done vastly more harm than good by their recent action, especially when it is coupled with their prior years of inaction on this issue.

Meanwhile, every day, each nuclear power plant creates about 250 pounds of new high level radioactive waste, which will need to be guarded for a few hundred thousand years.  I think that's the real problem, not my list of obvious vulnerabilities.  A few pounds of this Spent Fuel could lay waste to a small city or two.  A more serious release could lay waste to all of Southern California.  What coal plant can do that?

If "only" one nuke is successfully attacked in America, or anywhere, I don't think the NRC or the military would close the plants to prevent a second successful attack.  And I don't know what they would do if a second nuke fails, perhaps from an asteroid, perhaps from a foolish operator who flips the wrong switch or something.  Maybe then they'll close them all.  But not from just one meltdown and a few tens of thousands dead.  The NRC and the DOE have plans for what to do when a nuke plant melts down -- and I don't mean evacuation plans and stores of medical equipment, KI, etc..  I mean, they have already prepared top-secret statements about what kind of P.R. spin to tell the president to put on the disaster.  I'm sure it includes vital things like, "don't use the word 'cancer' to describe the health effects".

If one nuke is successfully attacked, THEN security will be finally be tightened.  Since the terrorists undoubtedly know that, we might lose a dozen nuclear power plants in one day, since they know they won't get a second chance.

The first logical step is simple:  Close the nukes.  It is NOT censorship of the truth about our vulnerabilities.  That won't do anyone any good at all, except the terrorists who have been counting on our complacency for their successes.  Both the terrorists in our midst who built and now operate the plants, and the ones who want to blow them up if given half a chance.  We have yet to disappoint either group.


Russell Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA
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First posted October 11th, 2001.

Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman