Sunday, June 9, 2024

Three reviews of books about nuclear weapons and nuclear war

Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen
(reviewed June, 2024 by Sharon and Ace Hoffman)

“Nuclear War: A Scenario” (pub. March, 2024) by Annie Jacobsen forces readers to contemplate the incomprehensible: A global war that begins with a nuclear first strike: A “bolt-out-of-the-blue” as nuclear strategists call it.

The book considers one specific triggering event to illustrate the start of a global disaster that would harm or kill every living thing on the planet. At the same time, Jacobsen makes it clear that many different triggering events could lead to the same catastrophic results. It won’t matter which country fires the first shot, or why. It won’t matter precisely how many nuclear weapons each country has or even which country is the target of the initial strike.

The book forces readers to recognize that after the first nuclear weapon is fired, the precarious standoff that has prevailed since 1945 would quickly collapse. Once deterrence fails, it is almost inevitable that every nuclear state is going to execute its plan to destroy its enemies and therefore, the entire planet.

In Jacobsen’s Scenario it quickly becomes apparent that the response options available to the President of the United States and his military commanders allow little or no time for discussion, negotiation, or communication (other than military orders). Jacobsen explains that these limitations to a “rational” response almost certainly exist in the government and military of every nuclear nation.

In Jacobsen’s Scenario, the United States and Russia both make erroneous assumptions which have disastrous consequences. The decision makers acknowledge that their assumptions may be incorrect, and that the results of their actions could spell doom for millions of their own citizens. Nevertheless, both sides launch their entire nuclear arsenals as quickly as possible. Before the other side can destroy them.

The target of one nuclear missile in Jacobsen’s Scenario is a nuclear power plant (Diablo Canyon in California). Jacobsen vividly describes how the radiation released from the reactors and their spent fuel magnifies the destruction and suffering caused by a single bomb. Reading about the repercussions of bombing Diablo Canyon should give pause to everybody watching the ongoing military conflicts worldwide, especially around the Zaporizhzhia reactors in Ukraine, currently being held “hostage” by Russia.

Jacobsen also emphasizes the impact nuclear war would have on the electronic devices that pervade modern life by including in her Scenario a bomb specifically exploded to release a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) above the United States. The EMP causes planes to fall out of the sky, cars to stop (or fail to stop) regardless of driver input, and electric grids, sewage plants, and gas pipelines to fail. Communication reverts to a time before telephones, radio, television or the Internet.

Jacobsen gathered data from many different perspectives and talked extensively with people who have studied nuclear war scenarios for decades. The book cites interviews with political leaders including former U.S. Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Dr. William J. Perry, as well as military leaders including General C. Robert Keller (former commander, U.S. Strategic Command) and Vice Admiral Michael J. Conner (former commander, U.S. nuclear submarine forces).

The final section of “Nuclear War: A Scenario” explains in horrific detail that the results of a nuclear attack are not limited to the combatants. An attack on a single country by a single other country would cause global devastation as fallout spreads and nuclear winter descends upon the Earth. Jacobsen’s description of a freezing world where nothing grows, clean water doesn’t exist, and radiation contaminates everything is terrifying.

“Nuclear War: A Scenario” by Annie Jacobsen explains why deescalation in nuclear war is highly unlikely, while unstoppable escalation is nearly inevitable.


The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War by Fred Kaplan
(reviewed June, 2024 by Sharon and Ace Hoffman)

“The Bomb” (pub. 2020) by Fred Kaplan uncovers the complex history of nuclear policy in the United States. From Eisenhower to Trump, “The Bomb” explores the options the U.S. government considered and the decisions that were made.

Some presidents had goals for nuclear policy from their first day in office, but were unable to achieve those goals. Other presidents began their administration with one perspective and changed their minds as they learned more, and/or as circumstances changed. For example, President Kennedy came very close to using nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Kaplan explores in depth why, when, and how Kennedy’s perspective changed.

President Reagan’s thinking about nuclear war began to change after he watched “The Day After” (a 1979 television special about the aftermath of a nuclear war). It took several more years and a change of leadership in the Soviet Union, but Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated a drastic reduction in nuclear arsenals. In the mid-1980s there were approximately 70,000 nuclear warheads globally. As of 2024, there are approximately 12,500 warheads in the arsenals of nine nuclear states (currently, the United States and Russia each have more than 5,000 warheads).

Each administration’s nuclear policy decisions involve a complex juggling act. Before announcing a new policy or even making a speech about a possible change in policy, the potential reactions from other countries – both allies and adversaries – must be considered. Conflicting priorities within the government can also impact whether a policy change is possible. For example: Will the Joint Chiefs and their Congressional allies support ratification of a treaty that reduces a specific type of nuclear weapon?

In addition to investigating each president’s perspective and how it evolved (or not), Kaplan introduces many other people who have participated in nuclear policy decisions. For example, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his Rand Corporation “whiz kids” were active participants during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and many of their ideas continue to impact U.S. nuclear policy.

Most people today would probably agree that ANY nuclear weapon’s use is “overkill” by its very nature, but historically it’s been a hard argument to make. As an example, Kaplan describes how Frank Miller spent decades investigating the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP, and yes, it’s pronounced the same as “psy-op”). Miller’s team eventually got access to data that showed that the SIOP involved firing multiple missiles at practically every target in the Soviet Union. Miller’s team finally convinced both the military planners and the government strategists that most of those missiles were redundant. (Perhaps that was the real psy-op -- but a very necessary one.)

A more than 80% reduction in nuclear warheads since the 1980s is certainly a huge improvement (even though it’s not nearly good enough). But it wasn’t easy or inevitable. Kaplan’s “The Bomb” explains how it happened.


Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom by Elaine Scarry
(reviewed June, 2024 by Sharon and Ace Hoffman)

In this extraordinary book (pub. 2014), Elaine Scarry explains how nuclear weapons violate the social contracts upon which all societies and governments depend. Starting with the United States Constitution and its provisions for declaring and waging war, “Thermonuclear Monarchy” explores how the threat of nuclear attack leads to undeclared and illegal wars. Delving deep into the underlying principles that support all governments – whether ancient monarchies or modern democracies – Scarry shows that executive control of nuclear weapons is illegal because it undermines the fundamental right to live in safety.

“Thermonuclear Monarchy” emphasizes that it is the responsibility of citizens and their representatives to control the means for waging war, and that consent of the governed is the mechanism used to assert this control. Scarry shows the importance of consent by exploring its role in medical practice and other personal social contracts such as marriage. She points out that medical patients control the actions of their physicians by giving or withholding consent, and that citizens must be able to control the actions of their governments by explicitly withholding consent to use nuclear weapons.

Scarry equates the care a physician must take to treat each patient with compassion and expertise to the role of the legislature in carefully deliberating before declaring war. She emphasizes that legislative debate is an important brake on hasty decisions, and helps ensure that all other options have been exhausted first.

Most importantly, Scarry tackles the argument that the emergency nature of a nuclear response requires suspension of the normal rules. This dangerous argument has been used since the beginning of the nuclear age to usurp the requirement for declarations of war and to put control of nuclear weapons in the hands of a few people – whether chief executives such as the U.S. President, military leaders, or tactical military personnel such as bomber pilots, submarine captains, or those manning missile silos.

Scarry reminds us that in any emergency, people need a predefined plan that has been practiced and can be executed without panic. For example, by practicing CPR according to a well-documented plan, two people who have never met (and may not even speak the same language) can work together to save the life of a third person. Similarly, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress did not abdicate responsibility for declaring war – instead the legislature considered the importance of the decision they were making and engaged in thoughtful – though urgent – debate.

“Thermonuclear Monarchy” explains that the arguments presented for giving up control of nuclear weapons in an emergency are actually the antithesis of proper planning. Instead of ceding control to the executive branch to react unilaterally to the emergency, both the government and the citizens should prepare for emergencies. Since planning for a nuclear war is impossible, citizens and their representatives must eliminate nuclear weapons and take back control over, and responsibility for, declaring and waging war.

Nuclear weapons keep the citizens of earth constantly at risk of sudden annihilation. “Thermonuclear Monarchy” by Elaine Scarry explains how utterly immoral that is.


Response to this newsletter:

"I read Thermonuclear Monarchy years ago and tell people it is a meditation on the second amendment that has nothing to do with gun rights."
-- comment from Jan Boudart, secretary, Nuclear Energy Information Service (

Thursday, April 18, 2024

More than a century is enough to know there is NO solution to the nuclear waste problem.

April 18, 2024

by Ace Hoffman

Yesterday evening (April 17, 2024) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a live and online public meeting ("NOT a hearing" they reminded us at the start) regarding the possibility of restarting the Palisades nuclear reactor in Michigan, located only a few dozen miles from hundreds of thousands of people, along the banks of a source of drinking water and food for many millions.

Palisades was[/is] an old 800 Mw Combustion Engineering Boiling Water Reactor that opened in 1971 -- making it three years older than the Agency that regulates it. BWRs are the least efficient type of currently operating reactor (and that will remain true until/unless Small Modular Reactors come along, which promise to be even less efficient -- IF they ever come to fruition).

Palisades was shuttered in May, 2022. Later it was sold to a company that has been collecting decommissioned reactors all over the country, but which has suddenly decided to try to reopen Palisades and become a nuclear reactor operator. The NRC says this is the first time anyone has attempted to reopen a closed reactor, but is hopeful there may be more in the near future. For a variety of reasons, this is a terrible idea. For Palisades specifically, it's insane.

Generally yesterday's NRC meeting was horrible: It was poorly managed, and the NRC speakers were evading the real issues (the dangers, the risks, the costs, the alternatives).

But once the Q&A portion started, finally, there were some really terrific speakers opposing restart, especially the very first opposition speaker -- and it's a good thing she spoke early on, because she needed a bit more than the two lousy minutes the NRC was allowing each speaker. (And only one question per speaker, with no follow-up, unless they got back around to you (which didn't even come close to happening).)

Throughout the meeting it seemed as if the NRC was only there to defend themselves and the industry -- specifically Holtec (the current owner) and Entergy (the previous owner). Neither corporation was represented.

The NRC representatives had absolutely zero sympathy for anyone worrying about the mountains of nuclear waste that already sits at the Palisades site, which they are threatening to start adding to: "I sleep well at night" one NRC official said about that.

And as always, the NRC is completely ignoring how incredibly more dangerous "fresh" nuclear waste actually is, let alone the numerous and inherent dangers of an operating reactor. Both issues are, by themselves, perfectly good reasons to keep Palisades closed forever.

Since it closed almost two years ago, none of the waste currently stored at Palisades is "fresh" (recently removed from the reactor). Therefore, at Palisades, a considerable amount of the danger from spent nuclear fuel, if a breach does occur, has already subsided, because many of the most hazardous, short-lived isotopes have already decayed, at least somewhat. But it is still far from safe! And the NRC is also completely ignoring the fact that even spent nuclear fuel that is many centuries old -- and even many millennia old -- will still be extremely toxic, hazardous, useless, and difficult to contain.

Neither the NRC nor anybody else on the planet has figured out to safely manage nuclear waste yet and (spoiler alert!): They never will.

Perfect containment is an impossibility in this world, in this solar system, in this universe. Even a small asteroid impact can ruin your day -- and make the entire globe uninhabitable if it strikes a high-level nuclear waste dump such as currently exists at Palisades.

When one speaker mentioned that the previous plant operators had destroyed vital records, the NRC claimed they'd somehow recreated the data and therefore it wasn't a problem, never grasping the concept that destruction of records is likely to have been a systemic problem at the plant, not an isolated one.

And when another speaker complained that there had been numerous violations of NRC policy at the facility in the past, the NRC merely said their policy is not to let bad things happen, and if any company does anything against NRC regulations, they'll...give them a waiver after the fact.

Oh wait, they did say that, in essence, but they worded it differently, as in loudly saying: "They would be punished severely" then much more quietly adding: "...unless we applied a waiver." And they almost always can apply a waiver (after the fact) and when that's just not possible, the fine never fits the crime anyway.

The nuclear industry has had OVER 100 YEARS to figure out what to do about the waste problem. Nuclear promoters have known -- or could have known, if they'd wanted to -- how incredibly dangerous anything radioactive actually is, at least since the Radium Girls, if not longer. That scandal was more than 100 years ago. Over 100 years to realize how difficult this problem will be to solve. Over 100 years to fully grasp what an incredibly small quantity of radioactive nuclear "quap" (as H. G. Wells called it) is required to kill, disfigure, and otherwise harm a person or other living thing.

Recall that Vladimir Putin had nuclear whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko murdered with approximately less than 1/20th of a teaspoon of Polonium-210 -- and everyone near him was put in danger as his body decomposed right before our eyes. That's what radiation does. But in microscopic doses it merely does it on a microscopic -- but not harmless -- scale. Even the least powerful radioactive decay (for example, a Tritium decay) can destroy thousands of chemical bonds in the human body. One radioactive decay.

So there's just no excuse for making ever-more piles of radioactive nuclear waste that is so highly toxic and so impossible to isolate from humanity. And so worthless.

But instead, the NRC representatives ignored every issue the attendees brought up: The issue of the shifting sand dunes on which the reactor was built, as well as the risks from climate-caused large waves that are possible from the nearby Great Lake. They ignored threats from terrorism and war as well, despite ample current evidence that it is no longer reasonable to assume terrorism against nuclear power plants is somehow magically "off the table" (as if it ever actually was) and several wars are going on as we speak, requiring and/or getting huge U.S. materiel involvement.

And as always, the NRC completely ignored the cleaner better cheaper safer alternative energy sources, the likely embrittlement issues throughout the plant, the loss of trained personnel... The entire NRC staff was all-in on restart. When someone asked about their response to a recent General Accounting Office report which indicates the NRC needs to take competing advantages of alternative energy resources into account when balancing the options, the NRC spokesperson simply assured attendees that they hadn't had time to review the GAO report!

There's lots of offshore wind on Lake Michigan.

The NRC is hardly an unbiased regulator. Yet that's why they were cleaved from what became the Department of Energy in the first place -- to be unbiased (the DOE is an unabashed promoter of nuclear energy, much to its lasting shame). The NRC NEVER fulfilled their charter. If they had, we wouldn't have nuclear power at all, anywhere, and we'd all be better off for it.

The NRC "spokesliars" rambled on for over an hour, telling us how good they are at regulating and how to contact them later if you want your written comments to also be ignored. Then they left just one hour for the public they supposedly came to listen to -- and a lot of "our" time they took back for their lame responses. With dozens left to speak, they extended it by about 20 whole minutes so they could act like they cared.

The NRC didn't even bother to hire a professional facilitator like they should have -- and used to. This meeting was done on the cheap -- but the government has over eight billion dollars to give to Holtec for restart? What a sham!

But at least they showed up: After San Onofre closed down permanently in 2012 (at least the locals ASSUME it's permanent!), the NRC stopped showing up entirely: No more hearings despite a mountain of hot nuclear waste that will need constant attention for longer than human civilization has existed. And while we're at it, does anyone recall WHY San Onofre shut down long before its license expired?

NRC maleficence. And utility maleficence too, but I guess that's expected.

The utility (Southern California Edison) tried to slip in a new design for their steam generators as "like-for-like." They supposedly did this so that the NRC wouldn't scrutinize the changes they made to generate more income (changes which caused the reactors to fail miserably -- almost catastrophically -- a few months after installation). The NRC blithely let the utility scam them. But it's not like they didn't know how different the S.G.s really were -- they must have known -- its that neither the NRC nor the utility WANTED the necessary public disclosures, hearings and scrutiny, since the math just wasn't there to spend well over a billion dollars to upgrade the reactors rather than let them retire a few years prematurely and be done with it. And put the money into renewables.

Instead, with future governor Gavin Newsom's approval, the utility separated out about half a billion dollars worth of additional upgrades that would also be needed if operation were to continue (including reactor pressure vessel head replacement for both reactors) to make the total apparent cost for just the S.G. replacement portion somewhat under a billion dollars. But the new S.G.s were faulty. And any competent technical review would probably have caught the problems with the new design.

This year, at Diablo Canyon (California's only remaining pair of still-operating reactors) the NRC is helping California's pro-nuke Governor push for extending the reactor licenses to 60 years. Doing so would void an agreement the utility previously made with the public, the regulators and the state to shut those old decrepit reactors at the end of their planned 40-year life-span.

At first the extension was just going to be for five years "during a transition to renewables" but the NRC doesn't offer five-year license extensions, only 20 years at a time. So suddenly a closing, decrepit pair of reactors in one of California's most earthquake-prone areas might keep generating nuclear waste for 20 more years -- not five, and not closing when their license actually should expire.

It's an insane decision in today's renewables-rich environment. Nobody -- least of all California -- needs nuclear power over wind/wave/solar, and California has been proving that every day, generating more energy from those sources than it uses for part or all of nearly every day this year, in a trend that will only grow exponentially over the next few years -- with or without Diablo Canyon -- but much more so without it. And much safer without it, too. And much cheaper.

California can do MUCH better without Diablo Canyon, and Michigan can do MUCH better without Palisades.

So why does Gov. Newsom want to keep DCNPP open anyway? The claim, of course, is they want to keep it open for the environment: The nuclear industry has decided to claim to be "carbon free" even though it's a blatant lie when looking at the whole industrial cycle of uranium extraction, processing the uranium ore into nuclear fuel, reactor construction, operation, maintenance and the never-ending decommissioning phase. And the accident risk.

But the real reason Gov. Newsom is desperate to keep DCNPP open is because if Diablo Canyon closes, California will be nuke-free at last, and no place for Small Modular Reactors. California's current state statutes forbid "new" reactors, but there is a plan to either rescind that old ruling or, failing that, to call any site that has -- or had? -- an operating reactor license an "old" site that can replace its "old" reactor with "new" SMRs. Even if the reactor hasn't been there for decades!

Seriously demented thinking, but that's true with ALL nuclear reactor "wisdom." Most if it based on distorting the truth, when ignoring the truth isn't an option.

One last tidbit:

Considering what is happening at Palisades and at Diablo Canyon, the next time a community gets a reactor closed for ANY reason, it should be sure to require the control room be immediately destroyed so that restart becomes impossible. If they say they need to keep the control room to monitor to spent fuel pool or something, that's a bogus excuse. Don't buy it.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, California

The author has been studying nuclear energy and nuclear weapons independently since before Palisades opened...

Monday, March 25, 2024

Re: Agenda item 35 (Diablo Canyon NPP: A liability California doesn't need)

Date: March 25, 2024
To: San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors ( )
From: Ace Hoffman, Concerned Citizen

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (DCNPP) is a eyesore, an environmental hazard, a security nightmare, and a long-term financial liability for Californians and America.

Diablo Canyon is a toxic nuclear waste-generating pair of machines, operating intermittently at best. Numerous major and minor repairs have been delayed as its owner awaits the final decision to either shut down permanently -- or waste billions of dollars keeping it operating for five, 20, or even 60 or more years. Or maybe only a day, if they're (we're) not so lucky.

And for what? To risk a Fukushima-level event here after an earthquake, tsunami, terrorist attack, operator error, or just because some old part wears out?

If you're NOT afraid of the nuclear waste Diablo Canyon continues to generate -- as some of DCNPP's more strident (and less informed) supporters have claimed -- then why not TAKE THE WASTE from all the other old, closed reactors across the state? Citizens around San Onofre have been trying to get the three-million-plus pounds of high-level, toxic, nuclear waste located in San Clemente, California, in a densely populated part of the state, moved away for more than a dozen years, with zero success.

Besides eliminating the production of ever-more nuclear waste, another reason to shut down DCNPP is simply this: It's in the way. It's in the way of renewable energy solutions that are far MORE reliable, and far cheaper, and many orders of magnitude SAFER.

California has already implemented a lot of renewable energy. Much of it is not even counted in cumulative state totals for energy production because it doesn't leave the site where it is produced (which is a very reliable way of obtaining electricity, by the way). But even so, renewable energy in California far outstrips nuclear's portion, and nearly every day now, for at least part of the day, renewables in California produce MORE energy than California is using at the time! And we've only scratched the surface of what can and should be done here with regard to renewables.

There are those who claim that DCNPP is "baseload" energy for California and therefore we "need" it. Neither statement is true. Every major facility that requires uninterrupted power, that regularly uses DCNPP's power, has other backup systems in place BECAUSE DCNPP is NOT a reliable source of baseload power.

There's just no getting around it: Modern rechargeable batteries, pumped hydro storage, inertial turbines and dozens of other options are available right now for emergency backup. Furthermore, grid improvements -- which have been known to be needed and which are coming throughout the state -- make "baseload" provided by unreliable behemoths as archaic and illogical as nuclear power has always been.

Moving forward with nuclear power -- without a solution for the waste problem and without a fair and equitable insurance system is irresponsible. The federal Price-Anderson Act, which has recently been extended, LIMITS the liability of nuclear corporations and the government to what might easily be a paltry single-digit portion of the real costs. After a severe accident at DCNPP, California citizens would individually have to "eat" most of the financial damages from an accident at Diablo Canyon (as well as eating, drinking, and breathing the poisons that might be released).

San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station suddenly shut down permanently when one of their brand-new replacement "like-for-like" steam generators suddenly sprung a leak. No one in California should ever consider nuclear power as "reliable baseload."

California doesn't need nuclear power. In fact, NOBODY needs nuclear power. The jobs are better in other industries, and there are plenty of them. Shut DCNPP down ASAP, and keep it shut. Before something happens that we'll all regret...

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA 92010
The author, an independent researcher, has studied nuclear issues for more than 50 years...