“Do you have any issues with nuclear armaments?” Hank asked.
The job interview took place in a room with no windows and the kind of lighting that makes me look translucent. My interviewer, Hank Henry, had the face of baking flour, very white and pliable, ready to morph and accept whatever answer I had for him.
“Nuclear armaments?” I repeated. Job interview protocol: repeating = understanding = alliance building. This was 1985. Post-No Nukes. Post-Jackson Brown and Bruce Springsteen’s surging voices trading my generation’s apathy and $16 for a concert with a cause. This was my first job interview out of college, my chance to move out of my parent’s house and out of state. I do recall that I paused. Nuclear armaments sounded serious. I do recall Hank Henry’s very-bald head turning ever so slightly away from me toward a wall made of Catholic-blue burlap. I do recall having a very committed tone of voice when I said I had no problem, none whatsoever, with nuclear armaments.
Taking the job at the Savannah River Plant—i.e. “the Bomb Plant”—involved my moving from the Philadelphia suburbs to the woodsy, horse country of Aiken, South Carolina. I was one of several hundred engineers working on the design of a facility to encapsulate high-level radioactive waste in borosilicate glass cylinders, which would theoretically (but inadvisably) be safe enough to hug. Instead the plan was to send the glass cylinders via railcars to old, abandoned salt mines inset deep into the earth. Of course, the high-level radioactive waste came from the production of nuclear triggers, but this was something I didn’t really think about. We were a town of engineers and operators who all seemed to work at the Bomb Plant, and that was that.
Vitrification: Long-term storage of radioactive waste requires the stabilization of the waste into a form that will neither react nor degrade for extended periods of time. One way to do this is through vitrification, melting the waste with fragmented glass. When cooled, the fluid solidifies (i.e. vitrifies) into the glass. Such glass, after being formed, is highly resistant to water. The glass inside a cylinder is usually a green-black glossy substance.
Steven grabbed my hand and snaked me through the ghoulish-looking crowd on the dance floor. We’d met that spring in Ft. Lauderdale in a bar named Summers, Steven looking like John Cusack and me a sucker for The Sure Thing. He lived in Detroit, which was very cosmopolitan compared to Aiken, South Carolina, and I visited every couple of months to soak in its traffic and grit and implied danger. The bar that night was a former dilapidated Catholic Church, saved from a wrecking ball and now a throbbing, candle-lit alternative music club. Steven led us to a spot underneath the Blessed Virgin Mary statue and immediately started his version of dancing, which was more like public rubbing. Normally I would have been okay with this. Steven and I did some of our best work together in a club, a place where he could set aside his omnipresent fear of death and failure and commitment and just dance. But humping under the ever-watchful eyes of the Blessed Virgin Mary felt different—foreign. I maneuvered Steven an arms-length away.
“Can you believe they left this here?” I screamed over the music, some pulse-y song by the Cure, and pointed at Mary’s plaster-blue robes.
Steven shrugged. “They left Him too,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder at the crucifix up front.
There was a giant Jagermeister bottle resting in the tabernacle, and I remember thinking this was bad, that the dance floor might fracture and open, swallow me and my see-through jelly shoes right into its catacombs.
“Love Cats,” Steven coiled into me and hissed the lyrics into my ear, his skinny tie and tight black jeans working their way all around me. He was a 360-degree lover, hard to keep track of, impossible once I stopped trying.
The buildings where they created the tritium and plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons—the Reactors—were tucked far inside the pine-heavy confines of the Bomb Plant. The Bomb Plant itself was 310 square miles—25% of the area of the state of Rhode Island. Our drive from the waste processing facility to one of the Reactors for a field trip took over an hour, Hank Henry driving a company van and us new hires crammed like a line of Q-tips on its bench seats. I sat next to my roommate Janet, who always looked on the sunny side of things.
“Did you see the deer?” Janet’s finger smudged an oval on the van’s side window.
“Wasn’t looking,” I said.
In reality, I was fingering the tiny, circular disc that Hank had each of us clip onto our collars before we got into the van. It was a passive meter designed to measure the amount of radiation we were about to be exposed to at the Reactor.
Janet elbowed me in the ribs. “What’s your problem?”
I flicked the plastic meter on my collar. “It’s freaky, this thing.”
“It’s designed to keep you safe,” she said.
I stared in front of me at the back of Hank Henry’s head. He was turned toward Bob DeMille, my cubicle neighbor, and they were laughing. There was color in Hank’s cheeks, which made him look much younger than he had during my job interview. Bob DeMille could make the Pope laugh, and he had a way of moving his teeth so fast that they looked like the wind-up dentures you can buy at Spencer’s, like skeleton teeth.
Passive meter. Passive, not active. Measuring exposure. We were going to be exposed.
Exposure to High-Level Radioactive Waste: High-level radioactive wastes are hazardous to humans and other life forms because of their high radiation levels that are capable of producing fatal doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, ten years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem per hour, whereas a fatal whole-body dose for humans is about 500 rem (if received all at one time). Furthermore, if constituents of these high-level radioactive wastes were to get into ground water or rivers, they could enter into food chains [US Nuclear Regulatory Commission].
The night Steven told me he was cheating on me with a sophomore named Kimberly I felt the phone hit my foot. Steven was still in college—a senior at Central Michigan—and while we hadn’t had the exclusivity talk, it had seemed to me to be implied. Kimberly. She sounded like a girl who would wear a high, long ponytail. She sounded like Steven’s idea of fun. She sounded proximal.
“She’s not as pretty as you,” he said.
The phone was back in my hands but I was not speaking. For one of the first times since dating Steven I was not keeping eye on the clock, not counting the number of minutes we were on the line, not metering our conversations to keep them under $20 a pop.
“She’s not as smart as you either.”
“Buh duh,” I said.
Steven laughed. “I knew that would get a rise out of you.”
The long steel door slid open and we stepped onto the top perimeter of
P-Reactor. I remember the sound, the whoosh of a steady wind at my back rushing by my ears, pushing my long, dark hair forward, wisps sticking in my fuchsia lip gloss. We were standing at the top of a deep, dark cavern made of five-foot-thick concrete. Our tour guide was Lynn, a tall, skinny woman who looked more like a man in a crisp white dress shirt and navy slacks, steel-toed loafers that could have come from Florsheim’s. The only light inside was shining in from outside of the steel door. The world inside was Cold-War gray.
“You’re feeling the airflow behind you aren’t you?” Lynn asked. “We keep the reactor under negative pressure,” she said. “This keeps the radioactivity inside the reactor and away from you.”
I looked up and Janet and she nodded at me and my passive meter. She smiled slightly, leaning in as Lynn gave us more particulars about the inner workings of P-Reactor, about how much irradiated fuel had been produced, how this was the site of a confirmed neutrino in 1956, which lead to Dr. Frederick Reines being awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics. Lynn talked on and on, but all I could do was feel the air rushing at my back, blowing through me and then down into the dark hole in the floor in front of us.
Bob DeMille stepped toward the edge. “Where is the reactor exactly?”
There was nothing in front of Bob, nothing at all except the drop into the reactor itself, and even in the dimly lit area I could see Lynn’s face turn to chalk.
“Step back,” she yelled.
But by then, Bob was leaning over the edge. “There’s a ladder going down,” he said. “A ladder embedded in the concrete.”
Bob DeMille was highly inquisitive like that. It was amazing to me that a guy like him—a guy who thought nothing of leaning over a 50-foot drop above a nuclear reactor—had waited until his 21st birthday to have his first drink of alcohol, had made a serious attempt at avoiding premarital sex, had thought about becoming a Baptist preacher. I think it was Hank that grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away from the edge, Bob laughing, saying, ‘What did you think I was going to do, kill myself or something?’
Neutrino: A neutrino (meaning ‘little neutral one’ in Italian) is an electrically neutral, weakly interacting elementary subatomic particle produced by the decay of radioactive elements. Wolfgang Pauli postulated the neutrino in 1930 based on the fact that energy and momentum did not appear to be conserved in certain radioactive decays. Pauli suggested that this missing energy might be carried off, unseen, by a neutral particle which was escaping detection. For a time in science, the neutrino was considered a ghost particle.
“You know this wouldn’t have happened if we lived in the same state, right?” Steven and I walked the stone-lined pathways of Hopeland Gardens, the only place listed in the AAA tour book for Aiken, South Carolina.
I looked up at him. His eyes drooped like tiny commas in the corners. “I know,” I said.
We walked in silence for a while, which was odd for us. In the not talking, it was as if the things we were not saying were hovering there, invisible but present. I was not-telling him that I wished I could tell him to fuck off, but I couldn’t, and he was not-telling me that he thought I should tell him to fuck off, but he really prayed that I wouldn’t. We sat down on a bench by a reflection pond and Steven started to cry.
“I don’t want to die,” he said.
“Steven.” This was not the first time we’d had this conversation. Steven was a philosophy major, and this death topic—I swear he wrote a paper on it every week—made him seem very Morrissey to me, dark and Rubik’s cube-like.
“Tell me I’m not going to die,” he said.
The reflection pool was murky green; the algae had taken over and turned the beautiful marble-lined pond anoxic. I wondered if Steven pulled this death thing on Kimberly too, and how she handled it. How did she manage to suck him back from the dark edges and keep him whole?
“Steven,” I said, and he leaned into me, his head pressed into my chest, his body rocking slowly and then faster, to and fro, as the tears fell from both of us.
After working on the Manhattan Project, physicist Dr. Frederick Reines took a sabbatical from Los Alamos and decided to attempt the observation of the elusive neutrino. Dr. Reines and his colleague, Dr. Clyde Cowan, set up their experimental station at the new Savannah River reactor facility in South Carolina. They had a well-shielded location for the experiment, 11 meters from the reactor center and 12 meters underground. In 1956, Dr. Reines reported the first-ever observation of a neutrino at P-Reactor.
I could tell something was off when I sat down at the cafeteria table. Like maybe Steven had told his buddies about the cheating, like maybe 20-year-old guys didn’t know how to talk about infidelity, or maybe they thought it was cool that I still came to visit even after he’d told me he cheated, maybe they thought I was easy, or maybe they thought I was stupid, the stupidest girlfriend in the world. Anyway I sliced it, it was weird, Steven not sitting next to me, not even directly across from me, and he didn’t even introduce me to the two girls who had joined us, and I was young, young in the way of business etiquette or, for that matter, just plain etiquette, and I didn’t introduce myself either, but I didn’t mind laughing with them and chiming in about how stupid some of the stuff the boys were saying was, because it felt good to laugh, good that at least some people at the table weren’t giving me the judge-y eyes, in fact, these girls weren’t really looking at me at all when they laughed, they were looking at each other and laughing, and at some point I guess I realized no one was looking at me, not even Steven who would not respond to my telepathic, skull-burning look-at-me eyeballs. He was not with me. No one at the table was with me. On the walk back to his dorm, Steven told me that the girl sitting next to me was Kimberly. Was that a sick experiment, I wondered? Michele + Kimberly + same cafeteria table = nuclear reaction?
The next Bomb Plant field trip was to the Tank Farm. Again we climbed in to the company van, our passive meters clipped onto our collars.
“This is why we all have jobs, kids,” Hank said, clicking in his seatbelt. “Without waste, there would be no need for waste processing.”
Janet knew well enough to leave me alone. She’d picked me up the night before at the Augusta airport and was quick to point out the mascara rings under my eyes. So she sat next to Bob DeMille and left me alone at the window seat. The forest of pines outside the van window was constant, unchanging. The whole damned place was green, too green really, and I wondered if all of the trees were really dead and someone came around and painted them to look alive. Maybe all of South Carolina was actually dead, zapped with sub-atomic neutrinos, and the trees along the road were just a shield to hide the nuclear devastation all around me. I pulled the passive meter up to my ear, listening for a clue.
“Each tank is double-walled steel and can hold 10,000 gallons of high-level nuclear waste.” Hank used to work at the Tank Farm, so he was our tour guide.
We were standing on top of a circular steel plate, and Hank could probably see the question marks in our eyes.
“It’s perfectly safe,” he said. “There are at least five feet of concrete in between you and the tank materials.”
I looked over at Janet. Her normal smile was replaced with her Sunday mass face—solemn, full of prayer—and her hand had strayed to her own passive meter. There was something different about standing on top of the Tank Farm, no wind at our back or pushing down on our feet. Just the hot, South Carolina sun on a still day.
“Do they ever leak?” I asked.
Hank looked at me as if I were an auditor from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Why would you ask that?”
The sun was hot and Hank’s eyes glowed and I wondered why on earth I had asked a question. I was not the kind of person who asked questions in meetings. I was the type of person that listened, I was the one who took great notes and had the ability to recall facts months after an event.
“You said they were double-walled tanks.” Bob DeMille jumped to my aid. “I imagine they are double-walled for a reason?”
There is something about the way that Bob had phrased his question, something Southern, non-accusatory—something cigar-lounge-conversation-like. Hanks eyes softened from high beams to college professor. “Well yes,” Hank said, “steel can fracture, just like all materials really. You kids took Material Science in college, right?”
I couldn’t help but ask another question. “But if an inner tank fails, the outer tank wall can fail too, right?”
“Statistically, I’m sure you realize how slight of a chance…”
Bob DeMille cut Hank off. “It’s not like you can pump this stuff out to another tank, right? And then how is it safe to go inside and fix the leak? Wouldn’t you be over-exposed in like a half a second?”
Hank pulled at his tie knot, yanking it to the side and then straight and then to the side again. “Tank five leaked,” he said. “Tank five leaked but the outer-liner is fine. You’re probably getting more radiation exposure from the sun today, don’t worry.”
I looked around me and every single person on the tour, including me, had their fingers on or around their tiny plastic passive meter.
“The neutrino is the smallest bit of material reality ever conceived of by man; the largest is the universe. To attempt to understand one in terms of the other is to attempt to span the dimension in which lie all manifestations of natural law.”
— Dr. Frederick Reines, Nature vol. 178
One Monday morning, the phone on Bob DeMille’s desk kept ringing and ringing. I hadn’t seen Bob that morning, and after about a half-hour of on-and-off again ringing, I decided to answer his phone. It was Bob’s sister. She wasn’t sure whom she should call and she was very apologetic about not having any phone numbers at the Bomb Plant other than Bob’s. Bob was dead. Drowned. Technically his lungs exploded when he ascended from a dive in the Atlantic Ocean without exhaling. His sister said this so matter-of-factly and with a buttery Georgia accent. Lungs exploded. Forgot to exhale.
The Ideal Gas Law: The ideal gas law relates the variables of pressure, volume, temperature, and number of moles of gas, as follows.
PV = nrT, where:
P = Pressure of the confined gas
V = Volume of the confined gas
n = Number of moles of gas
r = Equation constant, 0.0821
T = Temperature
In loose terms, if the ‘nrT’ stuff on the right-hand side of the equation stays the same (which, in the case of Bob DeMille in the Atlantic Ocean, we can assume to be a valid assumption) and the pressure is reduced (i.e. Bob is rising from the dive, the dark, murk of green-black ocean not much different than the color of borosilicate glass, the weight of the ocean above dropping away = the pressure reducing), then the volume of gas in Bob DeMille’s lungs MUST increase. If Bob does not exhale, the volume of gas will increase until his lungs cannot take it anymore. Bob DeMille was a Georgia Tech Chemical Engineer. I doubt he thought about PV=nrT when he was ascending. I bet he was already thinking about his next dive, what was around the corner, what would it have been like to climb down into P-Reactor. Were his eyes full of neutrinos when he left us?
I resigned from the Bomb Plant. Steven was graduating. He’d dumped Kimberly after a couple of months and claimed his faithfulness to me. I convinced myself that it had been the distance that caused him to stray: 887 miles + pony-tailed seductress = cheater. I moved to Detroit and interviewed for an environmental consulting job with a fortyish woman named Joyce with a Jackie-O haircut. Joyce informed me that consulting was a lifestyle; it was about getting the job done. It was about cleaning up the planet. I figured I owed the planet a little something.
In 1981, the U.S. Department of Energy began inventorying waste sites at the Savannah River Site; a total of 515 waste sites were ultimately identified. These ranged in size from a few square yards to tens of acres, and include basins, pits, piles, burial grounds, landfills, tanks and associated ground water contamination. Of particular concern were “high-level” waste tanks that store highly radioactive liquid waste and are considered by DOE and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control as the greatest human health risk in South Carolina. The Savannah River Site was placed on the National Priorities List as a Superfund site in 1989.
After I moved to Detroit, Steven and I dated for almost a year before he broached the topic of breaking up.
“It’s not like you or I have ever really lived yet,” he said.
We were sitting on my bathroom floor, Steven barricading the door with his back. We were supposed to go see a comedy show that night—Steven Wright—but my Steven had other ideas. He was on a death rant again.
“I’m not going to make it to 25, I just know it.”
“Stop being ridiculous, you don’t know that.” I busied my hands with making toilet paper origami—diligently forming a tortured bunny head with over-twisted ears.
“I need to live it to the fullest, you know? And you do too.” His nose was clown red.
In two years, this was at least the fifth such discussion about Steven’s certain death, but it was the first one since Bob DeMille had died. And while Steven sat and cried and proclaimed his certain death, his 1990 expiration date, I felt my mind drift to P-Reactor, to Bob DeMille at the edge of over-exposure, his face instead lit with the excitement of discovery—the ladder to the neutrinos—and I listened to Steven as he went on and on about the living he still needed to do, that I needed to do too, and I felt the volume of air in my lungs increasing; I was starting to float up to the surface. The tiniest ghost of something reminded me to exhale.