There’s a nuclear power plant right down the road from where I grew up. For most of my youth I lived in a campground in NJ, and every time we wanted to get a pizza (or a calzone), my father would make a right hand turn out of the entrance of the campground and we would drive through the pine trees, until we crossed a little bridge where people would be standing there, fishing.
The bridge went over a stretch of water that was drawn on and used to cool the reactor inside the nuclear power plant that was visible just through the trees. I never understood why anybody would fish so close to the nuclear power plant. There was water available in almost any direction, and that other water wasn’t directly in contact with a massive, radioactive bomb.
But, I guess from an early age, I realized that there are things on this planet that cannot be explained, because not everything on this planet is built on the foundation of logic.
Here’s the thing about the pizza place, it was all alone on the side of the road, and throughout my youth it changed many times. It went from being a pizza place, to a massage parlor, and then when the massage parlor was busted for prostitution ring, the massage parlor became an ice cream stand. Why put a pizza place so close to a nuclear power plant? Why put a massage parlor so close to a nuclear power plant? Why serve ice cream so close to a nuclear power plant? All these questions and more and none will ever be answered.
But there is this comforting fact, living this close to the blast radius. In the event of a fallout, death would be instantaneous, and there would be no long term suffering as a result of the effects of radiation exposure and the horrors it could pound against on the human body. I was told, there would be a flash and the flash would barely be perceived, because we would already be blown away into ash and there would be not a second of suffering.
Of course, there was the next line of thought … why live anywhere near the nuclear power plant at all? Why not live away from the danger?
Well, first off, there was the Atlantic Ocean, and all the beach you could handle. All the jumping in, the splashing in the waves. All the sun tan and the ferris wheel and the board walk. It was worth it, to die instantly, for the ocean.
But, the truth is, the nuclear power plant and all the danger it meant (mostly imaginary danger anyways, as nuclear power is statistically not that dangerous at all), faded into the background of the day to day life. Nothing could happen in our small town because nothing every happened in our small town. Not a visit by a movie star. Not a dragon landing top of the church and smiling. Not the Russians invading the elementary school, coincidentally while we were going our drills, of get down under the desk and curl into a ball in the event of the fallout sirens wailing.
Oh, and how did we get to the town to begin with?
That one is easy, my grandfather was part of the crew that built the power plant, he moved the family here in the 60s to have a shorter commute. And when I was old enough, I went into the same trade. Heavy construction. And I did briefly, get a job at the plant.
The outage was to last thirty days. There were two shifts. Day and night. Both twelve hours. Thirty days straight, Saturdays and Sundays.
I was lucky because my parents still had a house in town, and instead of living in the motel down the street from the plant, I could just drive through my childhood home town and commute the ten minutes to work, rather than driving from my apartment in New York City.
I was twenty six years old and I’d worked in various places doing welding, but I wasn’t hired to come and work at the nuclear plant to do welding. I would be just another body, dressed sometimes in a decontamination suit, and other times in a long sleeve t-shirt and a pair of Levis, waiting for whatever the task would be in the plant. The waiting. There is more waiting in a nuclear power plant than I believe there is anywhere else on the surface of this Earth, discounting, possibly, solitary confinement in a jail cell. To do any job, there are meetings upon meetings, and none of them involve you, you’re just there waiting.
Before you’re even in the physical plant, there is waiting. In order to gain security clearance you have to go to a set of steel buildings on the side of the highway at the foot of the plant, and sit through a week of interrogations by the FBI, screenings by psychologists (including a written and spoken tests), not to mention classes on nuclear theory, which every single person had to ace in order to get through the barbed wire. The person who would be mopping the floor of the nuclear power plant had to understand fission, contamination, gamma rays, isotopes, radioactivity, transmutation and any other number of endless things that had next to nothing to do with their bucket and their mop. There were also classes on walking into a contaminated area, how to put on your decon suit with your radiation meter clipped to your suit. Before you go into a radioactive area, your suit has been checked for leaks, filling it up around you like a balloon and waiting to see if the air stays in.
Inside the plant, the floor will be painted yellow everywhere that you can walk. Wherever the floor is painted purple, you must have on your decontamination suit and all other equipment that goes with it. To leave the yellow safe area and cross into the purple radioactive area, you will cross through a simple plastic swing gate, and all that will separate you from the rest of the people in the plant is a simple rope that goes from corner to corner. It reminded me of the early 90s when there was still smoking sections in restaurants, and you would be sitting there in the Diner in the non-smoking section and the smoking section would be immediately next to you. Everything mixed. Or like, for instance, a peeing section in a swimming pool.
What the classes teach you in the steel building, are believe it or not, mostly about how to take the suit off, not particularly how to put the suit on. Anyone can slap the suit on. But the suit has to be taken off in a specific order, and all the parts of the suit, discarded into a trash can just outside the radioactive area, you’ll track radioactive particles all over the earth. You’ll even take them home to your family if you’re not careful.
Before dawn, I walked from the gravel lot, up a steep hill and through the trees. In the trees was a watch tower with a man holding a machine gun. He had a helper there with him, ready to unload his machine too. I have to remind myself almost daily not to say “Good morning” and give a happy little wave, because I don’t want to get shot 60 something times, but it’s hard, my mom raised me to say hello to everybody like a happy little sucker. To get into the nuclear power plant for a typical day of work you have to cross through countless security check points after the watchtower. Each check point has some combination of machine gun, barbed wire, turnstile, security badge, ID besides the badge, German Shepard, etc. Everyone is stone serious and if you feel like joking around, rest assured you can joke around in thirty days when the outage is over and you are returned back to the regular world. This is not the regular world.
After a mile of zig zags through security, I finally landed at my destination, the trailer where all the other contractors are housed. I grab a seat at an open table, and I’m told that my foreman is in a meeting about a meeting about a meeting that involves the work for the day. My work for the day. I fill out some more paperwork, and then I’m still waiting for my foreman and I’m told I will be waiting, god knows how long for his return, these meetings can birth sub-meetings and further sub-meetings. Nothing happens quickly inside a nuclear power plant. Every move is calculated out into sprawling minutia.
I take out a paperback book that I am carrying in my lunch box and it doesn’t take five minutes until someone comes over and warns me that I can be fired for reading anything that isn’t related to the nuclear power plant. I either have to be reading safety pamphlets or booklets pertaining to nuclear theory. No newspapers, no novels, not even a love letter from Sweet Mary Jane Etcetera.
“What do I do then?”
I’m told that I can walk around the outside of the facility in a circle, can’t hit a moving target. There is a soda machine and a vending machine and keep moving, your foreman will find you when it’s time to go and do this job.
I begin to walk around from approximately 8 am until approximately 2 pm, where I am finally found, sitting in a shaded storage area, reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel, surrounded by PayDay candy bar wrappers and crushed Mountain Dew.
I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m fitting in perfectly, my foreman is pleased to meet me. He explains that the job I will be doing, the one that involved all of these meetings and all of these other meetings about the previous meetings, involves me dressing up in a decontamination suit and walking off the yellow, safe area of the walkway, and into the purple, radioactive area. I will be going into the radioactive area, all by myself, with a phillips head screw driver and I will be tightening four screws on a panel that the bosses at the plant are concerned could have loosened over time.
My foreman and I go through about forty pages of pre-job-plan paperwork and then I sign my name in blood and don the decontamination suit and head through the plastic swing gate and into the little velvet roped area. The screws they were concerned about are not loose at all and I am not able to tighten them any farther.
I undress in the magical order, tossing my decontamination suit into the radioactive trash and stepping gingerly out of the contaminated area. My meter says that I was exposed to a minor amount of radiation. A close eye is kept on the total amount of radiation a worker can be exposed to on a daily basis, a monthly basis and a yearly basis. If you reach the threshold for any, you are sent home with pay until time clears you again.
The second day is just like the first, only in a different part of the plant. The third and forth and fifth days are like those days too. I’m almost insane by the sixth day. I have guzzled 96 Mountain Dews and eaten 53 PayDay bars, I’ve read 8 Kurt Vonnegut novels. Each day I have to keep walking around and looking busy but there is nothing to do from 8am until about 2 pm, sometimes worse than that. There’s other people walking around doing the same thing but there’s not too much of an opportunity for chitchat because they are all pretending to be stone serious so they don’t get fired. The only happy people there are the janitors. The janitors have something to do. They are forever mopping inside the plant, keeping the radioactive particles washed off the yellow walkways. The janitors are the best paid janitors on the globe and they are smiling and whistling to themselves and life is good because they have a task to accomplish and there is no waiting. There is always mopping to do.
On the seventh day, I am caught for the second time reading a novel when I am supposed to be busy walking around looking busy even though I am not legally allowed to do any work whatsoever until the nuclear planning is all planned out and the work permits are in my foreman’s hands.
Instead of being fired though, I am rewarded in a way. They see that I have a high tolerance for sitting perfectly still and not falling asleep (most of the other construction workers are not able to sit in a chair without falling asleep in minutes of silence and solitude, but here I am hours and hours of just sitting here like a slug, book in hand).
I am given a job sitting on the outside of a hatch that goes down into the bowels of the plant.
Countless inspectors are climbing down into the hatch to look around at the cooling pits, that have been drained, and it is my job to make sure that every single pen or pocket full of coins, or ear plug, or even a set of dentures, comes up back through the hatch with the inspector who is going down to inspect the cooling pits.
I say, “Do you need that pen to go down there and do your work?”
My job is serious as a heart attack and so no one jokes around about me grilling them about the pens. For all they know, the disaster at Chernobyl happened because someone left a Russian Bic down there in the cooling pit. Blue ink.
The inspector shakes his head, no he does not need the pen. He hands the pen over to me and I add it to my pile of pens that I have collected from the many inspectors.
I don’t get to read any more Kurt Vonnegut in my chair, and I’d eased up on the soda and the candy bars, but by the time the outage was over, I’d acquired a five gallon bucket full to the brim with all kinds of different pens that the inspectors didn’t ask to have back.
On my way though the scanners on the final day, I was happy to see that the pens were not radioactive and I could take them all home with me and I’m sure, some of these ubiquitous pens, floating around my apartment even to this day, ten years later, are from back when I worked in the nuclear power plant just down the street from the campground where I grew up.
This much is true, I was able to buy my first computer with that money from that outage, and with that computer and some of those pens, I wrote my first novel. That first novel was about a man driven insane by the slow motion of daily life.
It was the first thing I’d written that I didn’t want to see blown away into instantaneous ash by the fallout of this that and the other thing.