Paul worked his way around the stack of half-filled boxes and slipped into the bathroom of his new apartment. He looked in the mirror at the latest blemish to mar his dark complexion, brushed aside a few stray bangs of brown hair, then fiddled with the open collar on his white shirt. After buttoning the sleeves, he declared himself ready. No more mowing lawns. No more sweeping up at the factory. This is the real thing. Grabbing his padded blue coat, he headed out the door. It was a cold February morning in
He still found it hard to believe he had ended up at
Paul had interviewed at Fairview Station in December. The recruiter, a chatty woman in a blue pantsuit, had first taken the carload of visiting students on a tour of
Paul hadn’t been that impressed with
Now, it was two months later, and in his well-worn car he was driving out of Brixton for his first day on the job. Paul went past the beauty parlor that reminded him of his mom’s shop, and he thought of her smile, her hug, and let the ache surface for a moment. You’d be proud of me. But you always were. Ten years had gone by since heart problems had taken her away.
As he drove west through the plain of snow-covered cropland, Paul thought back to his first glimpses of the
During his visit, Paul had never entered the plant itself. Instead, he had spent his day in interviews at a small office outside the twin chain-link fences that surrounded the main complex. He’d been pleasantly surprised that the supervisors with whom he’d chatted were young and informal, and they had seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Fairview Station. Now, as he was on his way to join them, he hoped his impressions had been right.
Paul parked near the same building where he’d interviewed, announced his presence to the woman inside the door, and then took a seat on a plastic chair. He tried without success to neatly fold his bulky coat, then gave up and piled it on his lap. Taking a deep breath, he tried to relax. You’ve already been hired. So just go with it. Have fun.
“Paul Hendricks?” It had been less than a minute.
“Yes.” Paul stood, and found himself eye-to-eye with a smiling, chubby man in a gray sweater.
“Lou Tarelli. I'll be your supervisor in Tech Engineering.” Tarelli extended his hand. He was probably in his late thirties, with a wide, rough face, a pug nose, and a thick neck. Dark hair lay sparsely across the crown of his head and was clipped close at the sides. “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”
“No, I just sat down.” Paul said, in a voice he hoped would sound matter-of-fact. The back of his shirt had already grown damp with sweat.
“Good,” Tarelli said. “Here’s the plan. I’ll be taking you inside as a visitor. That’ll continue for a few days until you get some training.” The supervisor placed a friendly hand on Paul’s shoulder and directed him into a small office. “Just fill out these forms while I make some calls.”
Tarelli returned a few minutes later, holding something inside his curled right hand. “On the other side of the fence, you’ll always wear a couple of things to monitor your radiation dose,” he said. “That’s not a concern at your desk, but sometimes you’ll go in the power block.” Tarelli handed Paul a finger-sized metal tube. “This is a self-reading dosimeter. Hold it up to the light and look inside.”
Paul did as directed, staring into the device as if it were a miniature telescope.
“You'll see a little scale in there, with the needle at zero. That shows how much radiation you've been exposed to.”
“It’s at zero,” Paul said. Cool -- and scary.
“Just clip that onto your shirt pocket,” Tarelli said, and he waited until Paul was done. “Also, we use one of these,” he said, handing over a blue plastic rectangle the size of a matchbox, with a thumbnail’s worth of photographic film peeking out from inside through a slot “That is a thermoluminescent dosimeter, or film badge for short. It's a little more accurate than the one you can read. It goes on your pocket as well.”
It was a short, chilly walk across the gravel to the glass double-doors and the lobby that was the entryway to the main plant complex and the grounds inside the fence. Once there, Paul was frisked by a muscled, grim-faced security guard before following Tarelli through a metal detector and then a tall, rotating turnstile that his new boss unlocked by slipping his plant ID badge into a card reader. The two then moved down a long hallway, flanked by bulletin boards, framed photographs of men and women at work on machinery, and the entrances to several office areas.
Tarelli briefly quizzed Paul about his new apartment, then led him into a room full of gray-walled cubicles and down one of the rows. “This is your spot,” Tarelli said, slapping an empty desk. He looked around. “Let see who’s here.” Tarelli glanced into the next spot down the aisle and Paul did the same, spying a man in a pale red turtleneck working at a computer. “Paul Hendricks, meet Mike Langford. He's our office Democrat, and another mechanical, like you.”
“Welcome aboard.” Langford stood to shake hands. A bit taller and sturdier than Paul, his rust-colored hair matched the tint of both his glasses and his well-groomed mustache. He was near Tarelli’s age. “So what's Lou told you so far?” Langford asked, his voice a distinctive, mellow baritone.
“Not much,” Paul said. “I get my own desk, I guess.”
“Correct, and we shall bury it in paper soon enough.” Langford peered over the top of the cubicles. “Meanwhile, Crutch approaches.”
Paul turned to look as Tarelli introduced the massive blond, bearded man coming down the aisle, who was wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt and stood nearly a head taller than everyone else. “Crutch Pegariek, meet Paul Hendricks.”
“Our newest sacrifice to the Nuclear Gods,” Langford added, deadpan.
Crutch extended his hand, his blue eyes lit by a smile. “Lousy break, Paul. Ya go into the volcano at twelve.”
In the quiet at his new desk, Paul yawned and turned back to the thick notebook:
Fairview Nuclear Plant, Unit One, received its construction permit on January 11, 1970. The first criticality was achieved on September 21, 1973. The unit went on-line as a commercial plant on August 5, 1974. Designed by the NorthEastern Boiler Company (NEB), the 1750 thermal megawatt boiling water reactor . . .
When Lou Tarelli appeared, Paul was grateful.
“So, how much do you know about nuclear power?” Tarelli asked, cigarette smoke drifting up from the white stub between his fingers.
“Not a lot. I never had any courses in it.” Or much interest, either.
“No problem.” Tarelli grinned, displaying yellowed teeth. “Most people come in like that.” He took a final drag and snuffed his cigarette out in an ashtray across the aisle, then pulled up a chair. As he reached across Paul’s desk and grabbed an empty notepad, there was the faint scent of tobacco and aftershave. “So let me give you a quick rundown. You'll pick up most of this as you go along, but it's good to hear it in a nutshell.”
“Well, basically, we're a power plant, and we use steam to spin a turbine-generator,” Tarelli said, as he began sketching, “but instead of heating water in a boiler, we have this big pot called the reactor vessel. It's about seventy feet high, and fifteen feet across.”
Paul studied the shape on the paper. It looked like a giant cold capsule.
“Inside this steel container,” Tarelli continued, “we have lots of long, skinny tubes full of uranium. That's our fuel. We call it the reactor core.” He drew several vertical lines inside the capsule. “Now, those uranium tubes can get real hot because of nuclear reactions and radioactivity. When that's occurring, we pump water into the bottom of the pot. The water goes up past the tubes to cool them off, and in the process it gets heated to steam.” On the sketch, Tarelli drew arrows among the vertical lines that pointed upwards to indicate the water flowing past the uranium. “We keep the fuel completely covered with water at all times, and let the new steam bubble up and then flow out through the top of the vessel. From there, we send it on to spin the turbine.”
Paul nodded. So far, so good.
“Now,” Tarelli said, “if you remember one thing, it should be this: the safety of our plant is all about water.” He pointed to the drawing. “Without water to cool them, those little uranium fuel tubes can get so hot they’ll split apart. They even melt after a time. Then, basically, you have a puddle of uranium sloshing around the bottom of your pot. It might even burn right through. That’s the famous ‘meltdown’. Nasty stuff. Of course, a lot of things have to go wrong before a meltdown happens. A lot of things. So let’s cover some of those. We’ll start with the high pressure systems. Technically speaking, those are . . .”
Tarelli charged ahead, adding layer after layer to the drawing, gradually quickening his delivery. Paul tried to keep up, but thirty minutes later, the dazed look he feared was in his eyes had finally been noticed.
“Heh, heh.” Tarelli chuckled and set his pen aside. “Anyway, Paul, we’ve got a lot of safety systems.”
Paul nodded. “You seem to.”
Tarelli stood. “How about I take care of a couple of things and then we head into the plant? See the real world.”
“Sure.” His new boss stepped away, leaving Paul to stare blankly at the wall of his cubicle. “So much…” he mumbled.
Mike Langford soon appeared from around the corner. He was wiping his glasses with a handkerchief. “Don’t worry about remembering all that,” he said. “Lou is an evangelist, and this is his religion.”
“So what do I remember?” Paul said.
Langford thought for a moment, his tongue softly clicking against his teeth. “Oh, I would go with ‘water is good.’ The rest will come to you in time.”
“Okay. Thanks.” That’s better. Paul leaned back in his chair. “So, anyway, what’d Lou mean when he introduced us, calling you the ‘Office Democrat’?”
“Oh, that was just his sense of humor. I’m a rarity here, especially among the engineers and management. It’s a conservative lot, and Lou is very much at home. Crutch, too, I’m afraid, though he’s not as vocal about it. What persuasion would you be, by chance?”
“I never paid much attention. Politics to me always seemed like my sisters having a hissy fight.”
“Oh, to the contrary, our political system is far worse than that.”
Before leaving his desk to go with Tarelli, Paul had taken some time to adjust his new hard hat, but he’d never given any thought to the plastic safety glasses that were now perching at an angle on his thin nose as the two walked down the office corridor. At least they were on tight. Right now, he had other things on his mind. He was about to step inside the bowels of a nuclear power plant. How will it look in there? And what about the radiation? . . .
Paul followed Tarelli through a doorway and into a low-ceilinged area the size of a classroom. Its walls were a soft green, and the beige linoleum floor was split lengthwise down the middle by a swath of striped, red and yellow tape. Along the wall on Paul’s side was a counter, behind which an older blonde woman was doing paperwork. Tarelli stopped, and leaned onto the countertop as he spoke with her. Across the room, in the far corner, Paul saw a wide steel door painted dark brown, with POWER BLOCK stenciled in white letters on its face. That’s it. The way in. Beside the door was a long table holding four boxes of dull metal, each the size of a thick paperback and sporting a handle. The occasional sharp, chirping pulse that came from each made it clear to Paul that they were Geiger counters. As he waited for Tarelli, the POWER BLOCK door opened and three young men in worn blue jeans, work shirts and hard hats stepped through. The door closed behind them with a heavy THUD as the workers began using the Geiger counters to check their hands and feet.
Tarelli finished his conversation and patted Paul on the shoulder. “Okay, let’s head into the reactor building.” He pointed at the line on the floor, then the workers at the table. “Once we cross that tape, we don’t step back until we’ve made sure we’re clean.”
Paul followed Tarelli to the metal door, taking an exaggerated step across the barrier. Be careful. Just don’t mess up.
“First thing we do,” Tarelli said, “is go through an airlock. As I explained, we keep the building isolated from the environment outside, just in case.” He slipped his pass into a card reader by the POWER BLOCK door, then yanked open the thick metal slab. With the word “airlock,” Paul had briefly pictured some type of metallic capsule on the other side, but instead there was only a short, narrow, cinderblock corridor with two exits. Tarelli let the first door slam shut and then opened the second.
For Paul, the next few minutes were less about gaining a foothold of knowledge and more a jumble of images and impressions. When the inner airlock door had opened, the first thing he noticed was the smell: a stuffy mixture of paint, insulation and grease. Next, as he and Tarelli began their tour, he was struck by the color. In a coal plant everything was dark and coated with grime, but here was only cleanliness and a multitude of paint shades. The floor was light gray and scarred with use, while the poured concrete walls were a sky blue as high as Paul’s chin, then white up to the ceiling thirty feet above. Piping, from wrist size to two feet in diameter, was everywhere along the walls and floors. Painted red, orange and bright blue, here and there it sported valves of black or forest green, with pale yellow handwheels. Then there were the sounds. Apart from the occasional announcements on the plant page, it was easy enough to hear, provided no large equipment was in operation nearby. But always, in the background, there was a deep, vibrating growl that Paul could sometimes feel coming up through his shoes, and this rumble was overlaid by a high-pitched, fuzzy whine, like the sound of an leaking air hose in the distance. As the tour progressed, the two passed by pumps, compressors and other devices, ranging in size from that of a football to a railroad car, the equipment sometimes filling entire rooms or mounted off to one side in alcoves and cubbyholes that were accessible from the plant’s wide main corridors.
Paul was surprised by how much he was able to see without donning special clothes or receiving advanced training. Always, he was acutely aware of the invisible danger of radiation. He took care not to touch anything unnecessarily, and twice he pointed the self-reading dosimeter up into the fluorescent lighting that dangled overhead next to long, metallic gutters full of cabling, but the instrument’s needle did not budge from zero. As if to emphasize his concern, there were also doors they did not open, labeled "Locked - High Radiation," and Paul saw other areas cordoned off by yellow and magenta rope, from which hung signs with the three-pronged symbol for radioactivity.
During the tour, Tarelli kept up a constant banter, pointing out safety systems for pumping water and stopping the nuclear reaction in the core, as well as answering the questions that Paul was working hard to devise. Try to learn. Try to act like you’re learning. Here and there, they would stop alongside steel gray cabinets fronted with multi-hued, blinking lights, or long racks of round, black and white dials, or clusters of emerald green air tanks, like scuba gear, that were suspended just above the floor amidst a maze of aluminum tubing. Occasionally, workers would pass by, both men and women, some pushing carts full of instrumentation or carrying bright yellow garbage bags. Temperatures in the building varied from a few degrees colder than the office area to considerably hotter, and after some time spent in one of the warmer spots, Paul was glad to find himself in the pleasant outflow from an overhead duct as Tarelli gave another explanation.
“... and that run of pipe is part of VEPI,” Tarelli said, pointing. He checked his watch. “Looks like I’ve got about twenty minutes, then a meeting.” He thought for a moment. “Let’s go up on the refuel floor. Top of the reactor building. A good place to finish.”
End Post 4
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
At the far end of the room was a large pool of blue-green water surrounded by a bright yellow railing.