Episode 38



     Sergei took slow, gentle steps as he made his way down the corridor of Moscow Clinical Hospital Number Six.  He was weak from the infections and his feet were tender.  But, he knew, he was among the lucky ones.  While the reappearance of his own radiation sickness had been relatively mild, a number of firemen and operators had already died, their bodies shriveled, blistered and blackened.  

     Sergei had witnessed much before he was finally evacuated.  Hundreds of men and women at the plant had toiled to bring the situation under control.  Dosimeters and other radiation monitoring devices remained in short supply, and often the workers went without.  Soldiers were brought in to remove the graphite and fuel strewn across the ground, and they had gathered it up by hand, all the while exposed to its fierce, invisible energy.  Within a few days of the accident the reactor fire had reached a low ebb, but the rubble in the core continued to shift like logs in a fireplace, sending new plumes of ash streaming into the sky.  Tons of sand were dumped on the atomic pile as a protective measure, but soon there was concern that the added weight might push the hot mass of the core right through its bottom casing and into a water tank underneath, resulting in an enormous cloud of steam and dust.  Divers, braving intense radioactivity, had finally managed to open some underwater valves and drain the tank.  Now preparations were underway to pump liquid nitrogen into the ground around the reactor for better cooling, and there was already talk of encasing the whole structure in concrete.  Pripyat, the city built for Chernobyl's workers, remained a ghost town.  All land within eighteen miles of the plant had been cleared out.  In Kiev, eighty miles away, streets were still being washed to remove the contamination.  Sergei had heard that radiation levels in the Ukrainian capital reached 100 milli-rems per hour in the days following the accident.  The city's population had left in large numbers, and vodka became even more popular due to the mistaken belief that alcohol would cleanse the body of radioactivity. 

     The hallway of Clinic Number Six suddenly seemed very long, and Sergei's slow walk came to a halt.  He leaned against a wall to gather his strength.  What did the future hold?  In America,  too, a plant had recently experienced an accident, and the outcry there against nuclear energy was intense.  But in his own nation, Sergei knew, too much was invested in the power of the atom to turn back.  The remaining reactors at Chernobyl had been shut down within a day or so of the explosion, but others of similar design were still in operation throughout the country.  The electricity they produced was too vital to be taken away.  His room was just ahead, and Sergei shuffled forward.  There was much work to be done in the Soviet nuclear industry.  And, Sergei told himself as he finally lay down, he would do his part.






     Merzhinsky never asked why.  He knew better.  And he never turned down an assignment.  That too would be a mistake.  Now, as they headed down in the service elevator, he stole a glance at the man beside him.  The officer was short, with the stocky build common among ethnic Russians.  What little hair he had lay along his temples.  His name was Dmitri Bykov:  KGB Colonel Bykov, Division S, Subsection One, of the First Chief Directorate.  

     He knows.  Merzhinsky had recognized The Look -- the slow nod and sad-eyed stare an officer would give when presented with his papers.  The colonel stood ramrod straight as the elevator dropped towards the sub-basement.  Arrangements had been made to clear the area.  The van would arrive in twenty minutes.

     The quiet was broken by Bykov's voice.  He spoke calmly, staring straight ahead.  “You know, if I were twenty years younger, I would try to stop you.”  

     “Yes, comrade, I know,” Merzhinsky answered.  And it never works.  His self-defense skills were one reason he had been chosen for the job.  He knew there were others.

     The elevator glided to a stop.  The doors opened.

     “After you, colonel,” Merzhinsky said. 

     “Yes, of course.”  Bykov strode out of the elevator in the purposeful style of an important KGB official.  Behind him, Merzhinsky pushed the HOLD button and reached inside his tunic.  The colonel had not gone far when the weapon was raised.  There was a soft pop, and the officer fell forward.  His legs twitched for a time, and then he lay still, a pool of blood forming beside his head.  Merzhinsky knelt by the body and felt for a pulse.  Nothing.  He jumped back on the elevator, and the doors closed.





     Wendell turned off the mower and pushed it back toward the garage.  It was more humid than hot, and he ducked inside the house for a beer.  He let the dog out as he came back onto the porch and sat down.  He sipped slowly, smelling the freshly cut grass, watching the dog sniff around the bushes.   

    Three more days and he was back on shift again.  It would be good to return to the control room, after all the time spent rehashing the event and his role in it.  Of course, things would never be the same.  He would be helping to manage the cooling of a damaged core, rather than the production of electricity.  But it would do for now.  

    He looked at his watch.  Karen would be home soon.  With such a high profile case shoved in the lap of the company’s lawyers, Karen had gotten the opportunity to do the kind of challenging legal work she had always wanted, and she was thriving at it.  She had also shown him a side he had never seen before: a strong belief in her husband, and an inner strength he had leaned upon during those first weeks, when he had been wracked with self-doubt.

     In time, they would move on – together.  He could picture them back in Philadelphia, Karen working for a high-powered firm while he slowly crawled up the ladder in a corporate engineering job.  It would be a challenge, but a good one.






      Gary opened the hatch and stepped out onto the slippery deck.  On the greenish-gray horizon, the sun was setting into a haze of thin clouds.  The huge ore carrier was halfway down the western side of Lake Michigan, its engines running smoothly enough for him to take a break and get some fresh air.  The job paid well, and its long hours gave him little time to think of anything beyond wrenches and grease.  His fingers wrapped around the guardrail, Gary stood watching the three foot swells, the endless stretch of restless, churning water seeming to echo what he felt inside.

     A gull skimmed low across the water, heading back toward the invisible shore.  Carol was gone.  The woman who had loved him, their life together, was gone.  Gary felt the twisting in his gut grow worse, and he turned back to the hatch, and his work.  Someday, he would take the insurance money, buy a boat, and start over.  But not yet.






     Steve listened, tugging at the stump of his thumb as one of the senators gave his opinion on the state of nuclear power in the United States.  It was the final hour of the final day of hearings regarding the Fairview event.  A lot had happened in the three months since the crisis.  Many nuclear units were now shut down, and the strain on the nation’s power grid had been felt most acutely in the eastern half of the country, where utilities were making constant pleas for power conservation as their customers suffered through periodic blackouts.

     John Donner’s part in the Fairview event quickly became a source of discussion in the press, and it wasn’t long before the FBI acknowledged he had played some role, though they chose only to speculate on his motives.  The idea that the Soviet Union had been involved had been offered up by the press, but officially it remained a closely guarded secret.  Steve himself had been privy only to hints and knowing glances from the upper echelon government personnel he had spoken with, but these were enough for him to know the truth.  Fairview had been sucked into an international power struggle.  It was some consolation– but only some.

     His own life had been a grinding succession of investigations, interviews and press conferences.  The citizens of Brixton had been allowed to return within 48 hours, and after that it soon became clear that the home of the Fairview plant manager was a target for every angry citizen and demonstration.  He and his family lived in South Bend now, in a house already owned by Hoosier Electric.  The company had been good to him, particularly after the truth about the cause of the event was understood, and arrangements were being made that would allow him to continue his career outside of  the nuclear arena.  A new office was opening up in Australia as part of an effort to entice businesses to come to Indiana, and he would be put in charge.

     Steve glanced over his notes as the senator began to wind down his monologue, cramming in a few more sound bites and statements of indignation for public consumption.  An aide to one of the more senior senators on the panel had told him a few days ago what the final question of the hearing would be.   He was ready with his answer.

     “One last question, Mr. Borden.  Upon reflection, what would you say was the biggest mistake here?”

     Steve straightened in his chair, then leaned forward towards the mike.  He looked to the table and his pad of notes for a moment,  and then at the panel of distinguished legislators.    “Senator, I’ve thought a lot about that.   We’ve all heard the expert testimony regarding the decisions made that night at the plant, for which I have always taken full responsibility.  We’ve also heard about possible design flaws, and problems with the evacuation. 

     “But I think we need to look beyond that.  We live in a nation that depends on electricity.  It is essential in every home, and as the recent outages have shown, without it our economy comes to a standstill.  Steps clearly will need to be taken if the events of this summer are not to be repeated.

     “It is viewed as a fundamental right in our country that we have access to electricity that is both cheap and has a minimal impact on the environment.  But I am afraid that to most of our citizens, the creation of electric power remains a process little removed from magic.  And in the case of nuclear energy, perhaps black magic.   Now the event at Fairview has touched off a national energy crisis.  A single incident -- which was not, and could never have been, another Chernobyl -- has the public clamoring to shut down the entire nuclear industry.  If that is done, it will eliminate a fifth of our nation’s power production.  At the same time, there is also increasing outrage over the high cost and shortages of electricity.”

     “Our biggest mistake, senator?   I believe it was allowing ourselves, our nation, to reach this point.”  Steve held up a lone finger.  “One plant, one event.  And now the power grid we all depend on is hanging by a thread.”

     Steve sighed.  He placed his hands on the table.   “I can only speak from my limited experience, but I think the burden now falls heavily on those responsible for informing and guiding our nation regarding its energy decisions.  By this I mean industry, the government, educators, the press.  Every day that we fail to correct the public’s perception that electricity can be limitless, cheap, safe and clean, we serve only to make the situation worse.  All must understand that there is no free lunch when it comes to energy.”

     Steve glanced at his notes.  He was making his point with far more eloquence than he could have hoped.  “Senator, I’ve often heard the statement that  ‘Somebody will figure out a solution’ to our energy problems.  I must tell, sir, that we are that ‘somebody.’  We must help our fellow citizens understand the situation:  how much power is used, the methods available to produce it, and the cost to both pocketbooks and the environment.  Someday, perhaps, there will come a time when the average citizen can balance the pros and cons of energy sources and make educated decisions, just as they now weigh their options when buying a car or a house.”  Steve shook his head.  “But, right now, I don’t see us headed in that direction.  I fear the event at my plant is serving more as a way to make political points and sell newspapers than as a catalyst for any thoughtful change.”  

     Steve straightened.  He’d said enough.  “Senator,  I’ve spent my professional life at Fairview.  My career there is over.  I can accept that.  My life will go on.   And like many in this room, I have children.  Someday, maybe grandchildren.  I would hope they could look back at these days and say it was a turning point toward a brighter future.  But unless we really learn from what has happened, I fear their judgment will be harsh.”






     The late summer sun beckoned through the window as Paul finished signing the documents and slid them across the table. 

     “Thanks,” Liz said, filing away the papers.  He looks tired.

     “Sure. If there's anything else, let me know.”  Paul hesitated.  “By the way, I didn’t say anything until it came out in the papers.”

     “Good.  I didn’t think so.”

     “I thought about it that morning --”

     “Well, it wasn’t hard to put the pieces together.”

     “You know, we still haven't figured out some of what he did,” Paul said.  “Your folks have been around too, but if they've found more, I haven't heard.” 

     “I'm not up to speed on the results.”  Just that Donner was very good.  “And even if I did know—”

     “You couldn't tell me.”  Paul nodded.  “Can you say why he did it?  First they mentioned drugs, then Mafia, then something like Iran or Russia.”

     Liz cracked a knowing smile.  “Don't believe everything you read in the papers, Paul.  Especially if it's a good story.” 

     “That's all, huh?”

     “That's it.  I can't say anything more.”  Liz herself knew only a few additional details.  Apparently, the Soviets had claimed it was a renegade KGB operation, and Gorbachev was cutting deals.  Nobody wanted another Cuban missile crisis.  Thus far, the leaks from the state department hadn't been too bad.  But it was only a matter of time.

     Liz changed the subject.  “Sorry we had to bring you in again.”

     Paul sighed.  “Actually, I appreciate the break  It’s been long days and not much time off.”

     “What exactly are you doing?” 

     “I've been interviewing the folks who were in the emergency center.  Now we’re finishing up a blow-by-blow account.”

     “Then what?  Will you stay at Fairview?”

     “I doubt it.  It’s a long-term cleanup, and that’s not for me.   I've been looking around when I get the chance.  Maybe solar, or a fossil plant.  I don’t know.”  Paul shrugged.  “Compared to some of the staff, I'm lucky, I guess.  I've got a few years experience, but I'm still young.  And I don't have a family.  My girlfriend's a teacher, and she can move.”

     Liz smiled.  “At least you'll have company.”

     “Yeah.  She's put up with a lot.  Everybody has.”

     “I heard they fired some people.”

     “A few.  Once the word on sabotage got out, the security supervisor was let go.  Donner's paperwork was in order, but that didn’t matter, I guess.  They also got rid of some guys who ran away instead of reporting that night.”

     Liz recalled a picture in the newspaper.  “I saw the protesters have shown up too.”

     “Some, but mostly at the corporate office, or tromping through Brixton.  Only the really brave ones come out to the site.”

     “Is it bad out there?”

     “Nah.  The grounds are all cleaned up, and they barely had to touch the office areas.  The only rough spots are deep inside the plant.  Nothing much got out, really.  Despite all the talk, the plume was a real dud.”

     “They moved a lot of people for a dud.”

     Paul frowned.  “Yeah, and now we’ve got lawsuits because of the radiation and the evacuation.  And our own truck got smashed up.”

     “That sounded terrible.” 

     “Six killed.  A mess.”

     “So will Fairview ever run again?”  

     Paul shook his head.  “No.  No way.  Even if we didn’t have the fuel damage to deal with.  I think there'd be a riot.”

     “But some plants are running, right?”

     “Less than half.  The grid’s hurting.”  

     “So what do you think will happen?”

     “I don’t know,” Paul said.  “We can conserve more, but that won't do it.   Fossil gives you acid rain and the greenhouse effect.  Dams are nice, but they kill a lot of fish.  And despite what some of the protestors say, we can’t replace a hundred nuke plants with a few windmills and solar cells.  They don’t seem to understand the difference between kilowatts and megawatts.  The numbers just don’t add up.  Not even close.”

     “You don’t sound very optimistic.”

     Paul sighed.  “A few years ago, I would’ve said we’ll just have to get the top minds together and work out a solution.  Then we’d all make the best of it.”  He reached up and brushed a stray lock off his forehead.  “But it’s not that simple, is it?”


The End



End Post 38



Thanks for reading!  See COMMENTS for my final comments on what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, etc.  J.A.



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