The Manhattan Project #2

(for the time being, at least through the holidays, I am presenting my unpublished novel, The Manhattan Project, a memoir by Jed Berman, the hero of my first book, Berman’s Lament, here. This is the second installment.)

You could see the big cooling towers beside the reactor containment room. No, I didn’t look up those terms. I learned a lot of nuke stuff by heart when we lived twenty miles downwind from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. I’ve had a really bad feeling about nuclear plants since we survived TMI. So it jolted me more than a little when this guy says,
“Yep. That’s where I work.”
I’m sure my head nearly did one of those exorcist things, damn near spinning all the way around, when I realized I was not only flying over a nuclear plant but sitting beside some guy who sounded proud of the fact that he actually worked there. I tried not to show how I felt about nukes.
“Really,” I said, as upbeat as I could. “What do you do there?”
And get this. He just as proudly says, “I’m the director of quality control.”
Despite my fear and loathing of nuclear plants (and weapons, for that matter), I was fascinated by this guy’s enthusiasm for this thing that probably killed my mom. We’ll get to that later. He seemed like a fairly pleasant guy, so I asked him,
“Are those places safe? I remember Chernobyl, and I lived through TMI.”
“They’re really quite safe, now,” he told me. “The problem at TMI was a lack of back-up systems and poor operator training. They had bozos in there who shouldn’t have been running a lemonade stand, let alone a sophisticated energy plant. It’s much better, now. And my job is to make sure it keeps getting even better and safer.”
I decided to push him a little, without getting nasty about it.
“Can you guarantee me that something like TMI couldn’t happen back there?” The cooling towers were now far behind us, so I pointed back with my thumb.
“Absolutely. They’ve all got fail-safe systems that would stop an accident before it got anywhere close to what happened at Three Mile Island. It’s even perfectly safe there, too. I did some consulting for them, and conducted a round of advanced training for their control room crews. Very safe plant, now. Of course, they’ll never be able to use the Number Two reactor again. People down there would go nuts if they thought that thing had been fired up. The new owners, Exelon, actually thought about it at one point, to help recover what they paid GPU for the whole plant. But even the NRC knew it would never fly.” He paused for a second. “No, but what’s left there, the Number One reactor is very safe.”
I pushed him a little more.
“But what about all of those people in Harrisburg, and Elizabethtown, and Middletown, and other little burgs up and down the Susquehanna from the plant. I haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for years, but when we go back to visit there’s usually an article or two in the paper about people still filing lawsuits ‘cause they think the release of all of that radiation made them or their families sick.”
“Oh, I’m sure they do. We’ve learned a lot since 1979. But, for some of those folks, the clock on nuclear power just shut down that day. Everyone who works in the nuclear power industry anywhere in the world knows that day—March 28th, 1979.” He stopped talking and a sympathetic look spread across his face.
I’d been carrying a grudge against nuclear power for years by the time I ran into this guy. The memory of having my wife come rushing out the back door while I was by the garage splitting firewood—we were in our frontier phase in those days—she came charging out and yelled for me to come in the house. All I made out clearly was, “Something happened at TMI.”

I remember the sick feeling we all had when we realized something like 43,000 curies of radioactive krypton—isn’t that the stuff that kills Superman?—had belched out some vent or other early in the morning and we lived twenty miles away, in the direction the wind had probably blown the stuff. We headed south to stay with some friends in Virginia for a while. Hell, we were still young. I remember wondering if the damned accident meant we wouldn’t get to do the things we still dreamed about doing.

I realized, standing there with an eight pound splitting maul in my hands, that this was one of those corners you go around in life, when things, all things, would never be exactly the same. It was my first real lesson, in the bright blossom of young adulthood, when you think you won’t ever die, about the finiteness of life. Ever since then I’ve been telling people that they shouldn’t put off things they’d like to try, things they’d like to be. There are no guarantees. Not even tomorrow comes with a confirmation number. My mother had a nuclear revelation, too. Not about TMI. Hers was much darker. We’ll get to that.
But this guy is sitting there thinking how safe nuclear power is. And he seemed like a pretty decent guy. I stared out the window for a while. The sky was overcast when we took off, but we had climbed through it by this time and brilliant sunshine reflected across the tops of giant piles of cottony, white clouds that extended like a sea to the horizon. That sight always makes me feel better. But I couldn’t let this guy off. Not yet.

I finally turned and asked him, if nuclear power was so safe now, what had they figured out to do to protect us and everyone who comes after us from the millions of gallons and thousands of pounds of radioactive waste generated by the plants and other nuclear-related activities, stuff that’s supposed to stay hot and dangerous for thousands of years.
He didn’t try to dodge my question. He shook his head.
“To tell you the truth, we haven’t solved that one yet. You’ve probably heard about the process they came up with for capturing the waste in glass cylinders. That’s the stuff they want to bury under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. I think it would work. But a lot of people don’t. So they haven’t started trucking it out there yet. The waste is still being stored at power plant sites.”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything. He went on.
“Yeh, that’s still a problem. But we’ll get it figured out. In the meantime, I don’t think we have any other really good alternatives for generating electricity. And the plants are safe, I swear. So, that shouldn’t keep us from continuing to run them and building lots more.”
“Geez,” I said. “Is it a good idea to keep putting in power plants that crank out radioactive waste that we already don’t know what to do with before we come up with a solution? I hate to think that’s the legacy we hand down to our children and their children.”
“I have kids, too,” he told me, and he seemed to have some real feeling behind it. “I don’t want to be part of anything that’s going to hurt them. I just don’t think nuclear power is that kind of threat. I honestly believe we’ll get it done.”
“I sure hope so,” I said, quietly, but inside I felt kind of angry.

Here was a guy who came across as fairly level-headed and normal, who, like so many people across the centuries, could live with an idea—a plan—that might very well lead to the destruction of the human race and the earth itself. That kind of thinking is part of what makes me want to howl. As the therapists would say, it makes me hurt. After all these years, I just can’t understand how we can even consider doing things that reduce the value of human life to zero. It’s been going on forever. I would really like to know why.

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