Episode 9




     “So, basically, that's how the plant works,” Tarelli said.  “Any questions on the process?”  He turned off the overhead projector.  The fifteen students slouching in the small desks of the classroom remained silent.

     “All right,” Tarelli said, “a quick word about the advantages of nuclear power.  A big one is no fossil fuels.  Fairview Station doesn't use oil, so we're not dependent on the Middle East, and we don't burn coal so we don't have to deal with all that smoke.  Even if you filter away the sulfur, you're still pumping out a lot of carbon dioxide, and there’s some concern now that all that CO2 might cause the blanket of air around the earth to start holding in more of the sun's heat.  The ‘Greenhouse Effect.’  Sort of like leaving your car sealed up in the parking lot on a sunny day.  Nuclear doesn't produce CO2, so no problem there.”  He shrugged his thick shoulders.  “That's my pitch.  Any questions?”

     “What about radiation?” a clean-cut male in a blue T-shirt asked.

     A smile lit up Tarelli’s face.  “Heh, heh.  Well, you don't come to speak on nuclear power without being ready to talk about radiation.  So let's cover it.  Anybody want to give me a definition of what radiation is?”

     “Killer energy,” a tall young man with reddish hair said from his seat in the front row.  The rest of class laughed quietly.

     “Killer energy,” Tarelli said, scratching his chin.  “Not a bad try.  It is energy, and, as our military has shown us, it can certainly kill people.”  He glanced around the room.  “Anyone else?”

     There were no takers.  

     “Okay,” Tarelli said.  “So, what is this thing called 'radiation'?”  Well, for our purposes, it’s energy given off by an atom as it falls apart.  Subatomic waves, or particles such as electrons, protons, neutrons, and helium and hydrogen nuclei.  These are all ionizing in nature, do not require matter for their propagation, have differing penetration properties--”  Tarelli stopped himself.  “Anyway, you can't see it, smell it, or taste it.”  He looked toward the student in the front row.  “Invisible killer energy, if you like.”

     Tarelli went on. “So, the first thing I should do is explain how we measure radiation.  We do it in ‘Rems.’  That stands for ‘Roentgen Equivalent Man.’”  He stepped back to the overhead projector.  “We were talking about how radiation can kill you.  So how many Rems does it take?”   Tarelli put a slide on the projector, but left the machine off.  “The guaranteed answer is six hundred and fifty.  If you are exposed to 650 Rems of radiation all at once, you've likely taken a lethal dose.  Without the best medical attention and some luck, you'll be dead within a few days.”  The overhead projector came on now, displaying a table entitled 'Radiation Effects.’  “As you can see,” Tarelli continued, “at 450 Rems, you've got an even chance of surviving, while an adult who is exposed to less than 100 Rems all at once should live.”  The Fairview supervisor paused to take a breath.  “And I say 'adult' because the levels are a lot lower for children.  The younger someone is, the less they can take.”

     The tall student raised his hand.  “What about cancer?”

     Tarelli nodded.  “That's the other big risk, of course.  When radiation hits, your body absorbs that energy, and it can cause damage that increases your risk of cancer.  Anything more than a few Rems at once may be enough, and the bigger the dose, the greater the chances.  On the other hand, if you get enough little doses over time, that might cause problems too.  They call that ‘chronic exposure’.”

     The class remained quiet, and Tarelli continued. “So now that we've talked about death and cancer and all that, let me ask you something else.  How many of you realize you're being exposed to radiation right now?”   Tarelli gazed at the ceiling, as if expecting something to fall, while a few students reluctantly raised their hands.

     “Well, you are being exposed -- and not because the guy from the nuclear power plant is here.  Don’t forget, radiation isn't something that man invented.  It's always been around.  The sun and other stars emit radiation, and so do rocks and soil.”  

     “How much radiation we talking about?” someone asked.

     “Compared to the numbers I just gave you, not very much,” Tarelli said.  “We were speaking of Rems before.  Now I'd like to switch to a smaller unit called the milli-rem.  It takes 1000 milli-rems to equal one Rem.  Sort of like pennies to a ten dollar bill.”  He rubbed imaginary money between his fingers.  “So, remember I said 100 Rem might just kill you?  That's 100 thousand milli-rems, or ‘m.r.’ as we call them.”  

     Tarelli turned off the projector.  “Now, as I said, we are being exposed to small amounts of radiation all the time.  ‘Background radiation' we call it.  But how much?  How close are we to that possible death sentence of a 100,000 m.r.?”

     A few students shrugged.

     “Well, not very close.  Around here you're exposed to about 50 m.r. a year from cosmic radiation, thanks to our sun and other stars.  Another 25 m.r. comes from the rocks and soils, which have a little bit of uranium in them.  Then there's the food we eat.  Add another 25 m.r. for that.  Potassium isotopes, mostly.  That makes us radioactive, too.  So if you sleep with someone every night,” Tarelli said, flashing a smile, “put one more m.r. on the list.  It all adds up to about 100 m.r. a year. And I should mention that the background value varies from place to place.  You move to Denver and you'll get more cosmic radiation because the atmosphere is thinner there.  At one site in Brazil you pick up twenty times more radiation from the ground than you do around here.”  He pointed down.  “And there's also another natural source we're just starting to get a handle on.  It’s a gas called radon that naturally seeps up out of the soil and accumulates inside houses.  It’s a little bit radioactive.  You may be getting an extra 100 milli-rems a year from that.”

     Some of the students nodded with interest, others glanced at the clock.

     “So basically, that's natural radiation,” Tarelli said.  “Then we dump some more on ourselves, thanks to civilization.  Your average chest X-ray is about twenty or thirty milli-rems, for instance.  Fly across the country and back and you'll pick up an extra three or four m.r. because of the altitude.  And, of course, there's smoking.”  Tarelli patted the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket.  “A regular smoker will deliver a few thousand milli-rems to his lungs every year.  Luckily, for me anyway, individual organs can absorb a lot more radiation by themselves than the whole body can take.”  Tarelli looked around.  “Can anyone name another example of man-made radiation?”

     “Nuclear power plants,” someone said.

     “Heh, heh.”  Tarelli flashed a smile once again.  “Right.  So just how much radiation is Fairview Station giving off?  How many hundreds of milli-rems every year?  Anyone want to hazard a guess?”

     There were no volunteers.

     “Well, if you lived on the farm next to the plant, you'd pick up an extra dose of a milli-rem or two every year.  Almost nothing.”  

     A few students traded looks.

     “It’s a small number, I know,” Tarelli said, “especially given the reputation of nuclear power.  But, I swear, honest-to-God, it's the truth.  It’s my job to know.”

     “How about other plants?” asked a thin young woman seated in the corner.

    Tarelli gave the question a moment's thought.  “I'd say, overall, we're about average for a plant in the U.S.  Go much higher and the government steps in.”

     “Isn’t your kind of radiation different than the stuff from rocks or stars?”

     Tarelli gave a knowing nod.  “The radiation from rocks, stars, radon, potassium and sources like nuclear power are each a little different.  But as far as your body is concerned, a Rem is the same, no matter where it comes from.”

     “So how do you know exactly what the plant is giving off?” the tall student asked.

     “Well, basically, we monitor our ventilation and water releases, and we've got a lot of instruments set up around the area.  We also check milk from the farmers nearby, and we’re required to take tissue samples from plants and animals to see if they've absorbed anything unusual.  Road kills come in handy for that.”  Tarelli pretended to hold a smelly object at arm’s length.  “Our tests are pretty sensitive, too.  Back in the mid-seventies, when the Chinese were setting off H-bombs, we detected the residue on grass near the site.”

     “What about Three Mile Island?” someone asked.

     Tarelli nodded, and ran a hand across the top of his nearly bare scalp.  “They released more than normal, for sure,” he said.  “But in the end, that accident wasn't too bad, at least as far as dose to the public goes.  The official estimate is that no one living around the plant got more than one hundred milli-rems.”  Tarelli shrugged.  “A few chest x-rays worth.  Most people got a lot less.  Of course, some people don't buy those numbers.  But even if you figure in a few hundred percent worth of error, it still doesn't amount to much.  Plant workers see that kind of dose from time to time with no problems.”  Tarelli briefly raised his palm to halt any response.  “Not that T.M.I. wasn't a serious event.  It was a partial meltdown.  But it wasn't the killer it's been made out to be.”

     Some of the students began filling their backpacks, and Tarelli looked up at the clock.  “Okay, I'll wrap it up.  Basically, let me leave you with my outlook.  You won’t remember all these numbers, but you might take this away:  Radiation is kind of like booze.  If you have a drink once in a while -- no big deal.  It's not gonna hurt you.  Drink a lot, day in, day out, and you'll have problems later on.  And if you really pound it down all at once,  you can kill yourself.  Same goes for radiation.”

     The bell rang and the class got up to leave.  Tarelli was packing his materials when a short, plump coed in a green sweatshirt approached.  “So how much radiation do your workers get out there?” she asked.

     “Well, the government sets our limits.  Right now, it's no more than 5000 milli-rems for a worker in a year -- and you have to spread that out.  And there are lifetime limits, too.”

     “How do they know what limits to set?  What's a safe amount?”

     Tarelli fiddled with his cigarette pack.  “That's a tough one.  They've studied animals, and the Hiroshima victims, trying to figure it out.  But the time span for problems like cancer is so long.  It's still being studied.  They may change the limits in a few years, as they know more.  I'm betting they'll lower them a bit.”

     “Are most of your folks hitting the maximum every year?”

     The supervisor shook his head.  “No.  We get a few edging up near it, but if you work in an office like I do, you don't see much more than background.  I think the best answer on health I can give is that there are a lot of folks who've been working in nuclear power for years, since the sixties even, and some of them have picked up a fair amount of dose.  And they're not dropping like flies.  I did some jobs myself, maybe ten years ago, where I took in about a Rem at a time.” Tarelli patted his round stomach. “And so far, so good.”










     “We'll go over it one more time.”  The man's voice was soft and patient.  He spoke in Russian.  “And then we'll go over it again.  And again.  And again -- until you tell us the truth.”

     The cellar was musty and dim.  Strapped in a hard wooden chair, and seated in center of the room, a light in his eyes, Vitaly could see only the outline of the speaker.

     “You know,” the voice said, “the truth is a funny thing.  For it is singular.  You can lie, and lie, and then lie to cover up your lies.  But the truth just sits there, waiting.  It is the only thing that is real.”  The voice took on a great weariness.  “And when you're tired of lying, it is all you have left.”

     Vitaly said nothing.  How long had he been here?  Six hours?  Twelve?  A day?  Two?   He was between flights . . .


     It was a routine trip back to Moscow.  He was passing through Rome this time.  His identity would change there, once he reached the locker at the far end of the airport.  There was a jab in the back of his leg . . .


     “Again!”  The voice was harsh, and spoke in a flat, unaccented English.  “What is your name?”

     “John Donner.  John Evan Donner.  What are you doing?  Call my Embassy.”  When he had come to, his bare feet on the cool, cobbled floor, his arms and legs immobilized, Vitaly had remained silent for some time, feigning sleep even as the interrogators tried to gain his attention in Russian and English.  Who am I now? he had tried to remember.  Rome.  Still John Donner.  Those were the documents.  And what to do?  Stay with that.  Be consistent.  But who was he being consistent for?  As a spy, he had always lived on the edge, knowing some day it could crumble beneath him.  Was it all over now?  

     “Where do you live?”  The question was gentle, like a teacher guiding a student towards the right answer.

     “South Bend, IndianaUnited States.”  Vitaly focused on a stone at his feet.  Looking up was a waste of time -- all he could see were the shadows of three men, gathered around him in a semi-circle beyond the reach of the light.  He sensed there was another behind his chair.

     “What is your name?”

     “John Donner.  I told you.”

     “Erunda!”  the voice said.  “Bullshit!”

     Vitaly heard the scraping of metal on rock behind him.  Then came a startling chill as cold water was dumped on his head.  He shivered.

     “That should clear your mind.  You might try this, too.”  A hooded figure appeared from the shadows, jerked up on Vitaly’s hair, and shoved smelling salts beneath his nose.

     Vitaly struggled against the caustic smell, twisting his neck left and right, but there was little he could do.  He coughed violently as the salts were pulled away.

     “All right. . .” the voice said, in English, with a sigh, “your name?”

     “John Evan Donner.  Call the Embassy.”  Vitaly mumbled this time, wanting to give the impression he was beaten down.  

     “Your home is?”

     “IndianaSouth BendUnited States.”

     “You are a very smart man, comrade.”  There was a pause.  “What is your occupation?”  The question was in Russian.

     “I don’t understand.  I speak English.”  Stick with Donner.  Careful . . .

     “No, no, no, “ the voice gently scolded him in Russian.  “We know you speak your native tongue.  You are a spy.  You only pose as an American.”

     “I don't understand what you’re saying!”  Vitaly said.  “Who are you?  What do you want?”  Keep acting the victim.

     The voice answered, in English.  “Oh, my friend, you must know.  We’ve found you out.  The game’s finished.  It’s time for you to come over to our side now.  We can make you very comfortable.”  

     Our side.  Western Intelligence.  That’s it.  “You’ve made a mistake.  I’m an American.”

     “No, we have not made an error.”  And now in Russian:  “You are a spy.  You have been caught.”

     “I don’t understand when you talk like that!  Let me go!  Let me call the Embassy!”

     “No!” the voice shot back in English.  “Now, what is your name?”

     Vitaly straightened.  His damp shirt gave him another chill.  “John Donner.  John Evan Donner of South Bend, Indiana.”

     “Ahhh,” the voice said. “You're not as tired as I thought, comrade.  No mumbling that time.  Good, good!  Are you hungry?  Of course not!  You've done nothing but sit in a chair all day.  Still, my colleagues and I have been working hard, and I think we'll get something to eat.  Perhaps it would be better for you if you stayed here and thought about things for a while.  Don't contemplate a rescue –- there’s no chance of that.  Think about how you can help us.  Think about how you can save yourself –- how you can make life easy.  Just cooperate.  You could really become an American if you wanted too.  You wouldn’t have to pretend.  Think about it.”  A figure came out of the shadows in a blur, and grunted as he swung something downward.  One of the back legs of the chair gave way at the impact, and Vitaly tipped over, his shoulder battering against the floor.  Then there were shuffling footsteps, the sounds of creaking stairs, and a door being locked shut.


      Vitaly tried to make sense of it all.  His interrogators knew something wasn’t right with his story, but could that be all?  Could he ride it out long enough to escape?  Yelena was waiting in Moscow.  And he was a soldier.  Never surrender.

     There was only the low hum of the city beyond the boarded-up window.  Vitaly knew if he yelled he would not be heard.  And who would he yell to?  He was in enemy territory.  Left alone for a time, he had nodded off, still on his side with his face pressed against hard stones.  He tightened his leg, and felt the bruised muscle contract. It would heal in time.  But did that matter?  

    Yelena.  He knew he would never see her again.  But the pain would not be his to endure.  Given the chance, he would end it now, quickly.  But she would have to go on.  What would they tell her of her husband?


     The figures plodded down into the room, and from the shadows, one hooded figure ambled behind Vitaly.  He could hear the scratching of the man's shoes against the rocks.  CRACK!   Vitaly’s arm was suddenly on fire, bolts of white heat shooting into his clenched hand.  Something had struck him on the elbow.

            The hood appeared just inches from his face, lips protruding through a hole.  “YOU ARE A KGB SPY!  ADMIT IT!  YOU ARE A KGB SPY!”

     There were other whispers throughout the room.  “Spy . . .  spy . . . ”

     “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”  the voice screamed into his ear in Russian.

     Vitaly twisted his head away.  “I don’t understand!”

     His tormenter stood.  “What is your name?” he asked, softly now, in English.

     “John Donner.  For godsakes, stop this!  Call the American Embassy!”

     PAIN!  His feet.  A strap across the bottom of his feet.  Vitaly's face contorted as he let out an involuntary scream.

     “You are a spy, are you not?”

     “I . . . don't know . . . what you're talking about.”  Vitaly wanted to vomit.  He struggled to sound innocent.  Dmitri had once told him:  “You can be a victim who knows nothing -- just believe in that person, be that person.”  

     The hooded figure shuffled around, and then Vitaly felt something pushing on his stomach.  “Look!”  the man said.

     Vitaly focused.  He could see the arm, the hand, the pistol pointed at his gut.

     “Talk,” the figure said, in Russian.

     “I don't know what you want,”  Vitaly said.  “Who are you?  What have I done?”  That’s right.  Get frustrated.  Kill me.  Pull the trigger.  

     The barrel pressed harder, and slid down into his crotch   “I fire now, and you’ll live, but not as a man.”  The voice was in Russian.  “Is it worth that?”  

     I’m a dead man already, you bastard.  I’m a soldier.  “What do you want?  Just tell me!”   Please, let them take care of Yelena.

     There was a click, as the hammer of the revolver was cocked into place.

     “I don’t know what you want!  If I did, don't you think I would say it?  Who are you?”

     Vitaly saw the finger squeeze, and his body tensed, awaiting the pain.  But there was only another click.  Then silence.  No motion.  Fooled me.  Now I break down.  No!

     A few more seconds, and then the man in the hood spoke, in Russian.  “We are KGB, like you, comrade.”  The pressure of the barrel disappeared as the tormentor rose to his feet.

     Vitaly had anticipated the trick.  He would not fall for it.  “I don’t understand.  Let me go!”

     More silence.

     “Comrade Kruchinkin, I commend you on behalf of the Soviet people.”  

     Vitaly instantly recognized Dmitri's voice.  More lights came on and the man with the gun moved back as another figure approached.  Vitaly looked up into the round, familiar face.

     “You have done well, “ Dmitri said.  “The test is over now.”

      Vitaly could not think of a response.  He felt only a numbness, tinged with relief.

     “Doctor, see to him,” Dmitri said, and a figure moved in with a black bag, as two other men began to release Vitaly's hands and feet.  “Right now, Vitaly Fedorovich, you're in shock,” Dmitri said.  “An hour from now you'll be calling me a son of a bitch.  But in time you will understand the reason for this.  We had to test you.  Now you may be of more service than ever.”

     Vitaly winced as firm hands slowly straightened his legs.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw the doctor preparing an injection, holding the needle up to the light. “Yelena?” he asked.

     “She’s not expecting you for a few more days,” Dmitri said.  “And she’ll have quite a few new luxuries to show you.  She’ll also be hearing about a pay increase.  First, though, you’ll need to rest and recover.  Then we’ll go home.”







End Post 9








“The fuel had been uncovered by then, and the top of the core was starting to melt.”






All Rights Reserved, © 2005 LAG Enterprises