Episode 5


     Paul and his supervisor stepped off the elevator into a spacious hall topped by a rounded dome of off-white concrete.  There was no one else about and it was quieter here than anywhere else they had been.  At the far end of the room was a large pool of blue-green water surrounded by a bright yellow railing.  Tarelli took off toward it, but then halfway there, he stopped atop a circular disc of cement thirty feet across, and turned to Paul, a twinkle in his eyes.  “We're standing on top of the reactor now.”

     Shit!  Paul instinctively looked down.  

     “Don’t worry,” Tarelli said, “you won’t pick up any radiation here.  There’s a lot of concrete and steel and water between you and the core.  It's about ninety feet below, down inside the reactor vessel.  Just a few hundred pounds of  hot uranium.  Everything else you’ve seen today is because of that”      

      Paul resisted the urge to look towards his feet again.

      “Now over here,” Tarelli said, heading on towards the pool, “we've got our old fuel stored underwater.”  He pointed over the railing.  “Take a look, but keep a grip on your hard hat.  If it goes in the water, you won’t be getting it back.” 

     Paul pushed down on his helmet and peered into the pit.  The water was strikingly clear, and far below the surface, covering the bottom, was a shiny grid of metal - - rows and rows of squares perhaps ten inches on a side.  Some were filled-in by a reddish-gray cap, while the remainder appeared black, deep, and empty.

     “Many of those slots hold our used fuel,” Tarelli said. “The uranium tubes in the core are kept in square bundles of twelve.  Each of those is about the size of a telephone pole.”

     “And we’re actually seeing them?”

     “The very top, yes.  The water shields us from the radiation.”

     “So the fuel gets used in the reactor,” Paul said, “then you put it here.”  He looked back from the pool to the disk he had been standing on.  “How do you move it?”

     “Well, we do all the transferring underwater.  We pull out that cement plug we walked over and then unbolt the lid of the reactor vessel.  After that, we fill up all the empty space with water and then connect it with the storage pool.  When everything’s ready, it’s basically just a matter of reaching down into the reactor hole, lifting out a fuel bundle, and then carrying it beneath the surface to the grid next door.”  

     “That would be cool to see.”

     “It is,” Tarelli said.  “It's also the only chance we ever get to look at the reactor core itself. And the fuel does glow when you take it out.  Or at least the water around it does.  Bright blue, like a bug lamp.  The tour groups love it.”

     “You have tour groups in here?”

     “During refueling, sure.  All that water is like liquid lead.  Blocks the radiation, as its doing now with the spent fuel.”  Tarelli pointed down.  “Without that water, we’d have been doomed from the time we walked in the door.  That used stuff is dangerous.”

     “How long will it stay that way?”

     Tarelli gave the question a moment’s thought.  “Oh, about a hundred thousand years.  The government's supposed to put it deep underground, but they haven't picked a spot yet.  They’re looking at one in Nevada.  I hope they get it sorted out soon -- having old fuel sitting around like this all over the country isn’t such a great thing.  The nuclear industry gives the Energy Department half a billion every year to keep working on it.  To pay for that, we’re allowed to add a fee to our customers’ bills, and we also get to keep a little for a decommissioning fund, so we can clean up this place when we close after forty years.”  Tarelli stepped away from the railing.  “But the end of Fairview Station is a long way off.”  He looked at his watch.  “And I’m late for a meeting.”






     Paul reached into the box and pulled out three more science fiction novels, then crammed them onto the shelf.  Most of his first day off had been spent settling into the apartment he'd rented in Brixton.  A radio provided thumping background music, the components of his stereo still in boxes, stacked in the corner.  A few paychecks, Paul kept telling himself, and he could afford a new setup, with more wattage, a woofer, the works.

     Next from the box came a stack of Playboys and National Lampoons, then a plaque from his days in Little League, at a time when there was still a chance he’d turn out to be a decent athlete.  He grabbed a few engineering texts, and between them found a magazine cover of Madonna that had been stuck on the wall of his dorm room.

     The mindless task of unpacking was a welcome break after a long week of nuclear power.  He had quickly learned that all the complexities of turbines and generators he had studied were taken for granted at Fairview Station -- but then so was nuclear fission itself.  That process wasn't hard to manage.  It was the safety systems that were the real focus, the special equipment built to ensure the fuel in the reactor vessel was always kept cool and covered by water.  Sturdy One, Sturdy Two, Veppy and Fuel Spray, Paul repeated to himself.  STurDI-1 and 2, VEPI and Fuel Spray.  And there were other systems designed to shut down the nuclear reaction or keep radiation from escaping.  EmShut, ARAFS.  Langford had also mentioned that Kittleburg, Hoosier Electric's other nuclear plant over by Fort Wayne, was completely different.  Paul had shuddered at the thought.  He'd stick with Fairview Station.  One reactor was enough.

     The last item in the box was a book from a course he’d taken on the history of technology.  Paul studied the cover.  There was DaVinci, some Chinese guy, Thomas Edison.  Edison, he’d learned, had been in at the beginning of the electric power industry.  It was during his time that inventions, on a regular basis, began to exceed the understanding of the common man.  A steam engine, or an improved clock, could be understood at some level by a simple craftsman, but electricity and the phonograph seemed like magic.  Edison had tried to use this to his advantage when his power system, which used the one-way flow of electrons known as direct current, was challenged by the superior alternating current technology of George Westinghouse.  This A.C. system featured electrons vibrating back and forth.  While Edison’s electricity couldn’t be transmitted more than a few blocks without thick, costly wires, alternating current could travel for miles.  To turn the public against his competitor, Edison had convinced the prison authorities in New York to build the world’s first electric chair, using the more “dangerous” alternating current as the instrument of death.  Ultimately, the ploy failed, as the prospect of needing an Edison power plant every few blocks pleased neither consumers nor investors.

     In the end, Paul had learned, it was the public that decided what stayed and what went, balancing convenience and progress against the perceived difficulties that every new technology presented.  It would be the same for nuclear power –- and for the time being, he had a ringside seat.     






     “So, how do you like work so far?”  Crutch's wife asked as she passed Paul a bowl of steamed carrots.  In contrast to her tall, Nordic husband, Maxie Pegariek was a petite brunette, with dark eyes and olive skin.

     “It's okay,” Paul said.  “But the learning curve is pretty steep.”  

     “You got that right,” Crutch agreed.  “Lou figures a year ‘fore you’re worth much.  I’ve doubled that and still seem to run around like a chicken with its head cut off.”

     “It's a lot different than what I'd pictured,” Paul said.  “You get this image of scientists in lab coats.”  

     “Nope.”  Crutch shook his head.   

     “Everybody seems real normal,” Paul said.  “They're just older versions of the guys I went to college with.”  He took a piece of roast pork from the center of the table.  “How many people out there, anyway?”  

     “About three hundred.”

     “I can believe it.”  On a nearby wall, Paul had noticed a framed photo of a basketball player aggressively pulling in a rebound.  “What’s the picture from?” he asked.

     “That’s me at Valpo,” Crutch said.  “One of many glorious moments.”

     “Be sure and tell him what happened later in that game,” Maxie said with a sly smile.

     “I know that’s the only reason ya let me put it up,” Crutch said, “so you can mention that.”  He leaned back in his chair and looked at Paul.  “Later on, I missed three straight lay-ups.  We lost by two points.  The campus paper had a headline the next day:  ‘Crutch Needs Guide Dog.’  Saw a lot of bench time after that.”

     “So why do they call you Crutch, anyway?”

     “Everybody has since junior high.  I broke my left ankle, then my right foot.  Hell, I lived on the things for a year.”

     “I thought he was cute,” Maxie said.

     “So you two have known each other a long time.”

     “Oh, yeah.  I was just a simple farm boy an’ she was a city gal from Logansport.”

     Maxie rolled her eyes.  “He lived two miles outside of town.”

     “I think I drove through there on my way up,” Paul said.

    “Probably,” Crutch agreed.  “It’s two counties south.

     “So, do you still play basketball?”

     “Hey, this is Indiana, boy.  It’s the state religion.  I play up’n South Bend.”

     “And come home bruised and battered,” Maxie said.

     They ate for a while until Crutch spoke up again.  “You ‘dressed out’ yet?”

     “I don't even know what that means,” Paul said.

     “Is that when you have to undress in front of everybody?” Maxie asked her husband.

     “Yep,” Crutch said.  “Out in the middle of the plant, gals strolling by, whatever.  Ya strip down to your shorts, climb in a suit–“

     “For real?” Paul said.  

     “Don’t worry, you’ll get trained on it soon.  If ya go in a contaminated area, ya wear a yellow jumpsuit instead a your street clothes.  Anti-contamination clothing.  'Anti-c's”.

     “That keeps the radiation out?”

     “Nope, you’ll still get exposed,” Crutch said.  “To stop rads ya need somethin’ thick and dense.  Lead or steel or water.  It's like tryin’ ta block radio waves.”

     “So the suit's just to keep you from getting dirty?” Maxie asked.

     “That’s the idea.  It stops ya from carryin’ radioactive dust and grime back into the clean areas.  When ya come out, ya toss it all in a barrel.”

     “And that keeps the radiation in the plant?”  Paul said.

     “Sorta.  It keeps radioactive particles inside. You know the difference ‘tween exposure and contamination?”


     “Well, the best explanation I've heard is that exposure ta radiation is like exposure ta sunlight.  On the other hand, contamination would be if ya actually had a piece a sun stuck to you.  They call it being 'crapped up.’  That’s what the suit prevents.”

     “The whole thing sounds bad to me.” Maxie said.  “It’s the part of Crutch's job I don't like.”

     “They take a lotta precautions,” Crutch said.  He speared a bit of salad.  “Anyway, in our job ya don't hafta do it much.”






End Post 5








Langford pointed toward a rack of bright green, high pressure tanks the size of scuba gear.  “The emergency brakes.”






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