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Nuclear Guilt

October 30, 2012

Yes, that’s Theramore, again.  This is going to be a very personal post – if you want happy entertainment, I suggest you skip this installment.
This scenario continues to bother me on a very personal level.  I’ve done this already.  And, not that I’ve done it during the pre-Mists update, that’s not what I mean.  Most of us did it then, it was the first fresh content in a while.

I mean, in real life.

This is going to take some explaining, I realize.  Hardly anyone else has ever heard this before – I usually stay dead silent on the subject.  Give me a little room, and I’ll try to explain.

I was born in the mid-seventies, in Philadelphia.  I barely remember living in an old Victorian house on a corner in Ridley Park, PA, just outside of Philly.  My father was a nuclear engineer, he had hard hats and geiger-counters and cool science stuff.

Then, Three Mile Island (TMI) happened.  If you’re unaware, Three Mile Island is a nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River (we nicknamed it the “Suck-A-Banana”), just south of Harrisburg, out in central Pennsylvania.  In 1979, there was a nuclear meltdown at that power plant.  At least, that’s how it happened to most of you.  That’s not how it happened to us.

No one knew what had happened, when it actually happened.  The agencies involved in running TMI had to put together a “research team” to go into the reactor and find out what occurred.  My father was put on that research team.

Some of what I’m going to tell you is what my mother could tell me later, some of it is what I vividly remember, and some of the details happened to have emerged only in the past five years during therapy.  So, if my storytelling here wanders off the path a little, I apologize.
Being on a team to go into a reactor that had an “event” was a horrifyingly stressful situation.  People had to walk into the reactor wearing lead suits, point flashlights around, and try to make a diagnosis, and figure out what to do next.  That’s what the research team was.

They were awake, running 24/7, for weeks.  The research team members eventually took to drinking alcohol in order to try to get some sleep.  They were terrified.  There had never been a nuclear disaster in the history of the US prior to this event – they didn’t know what could happen.  Was there going to be a crater, like in the above picture?  How many people were going to die?

At one point my father told me that one of the engineers on the team stripped his lead suit off and tried running straight into the reactor.  My father had to hit him in the back of the head with a pipe and drag him out.  In turn, my father also took his glove off while inside, and held a fuel rod – that’s the uranium that’s having the nuclear reaction – in his bare hand because he was trying to kill himself.

My father had given my mother instructions that if he called and told her that it was unrecoverable, that she should do the following: she should load the shotgun, and shoot my brother and I in the back.  The pellet spread was bound to get us in the hearts, and she wouldn’t have to see our faces when we die.  She was instructed to overdose on pills afterwards.  He didn’t want his family to have to live through a nuclear apocalypse.  That’s how scared they were.

He did, in fact, call and tell her it was unrecoverable.  Thankfully, she didn’t follow orders.  I want to be very clear, I love my mother.

We moved out to the area near the reactor.  At that time, it was diagnosed as a meltdown, but it was undecided whether or not they should “contain” it.  So, let me give you a quick run-down on a reactor – they’re pretty simple, but you’ll need this to understand the context.  Nuclear fuel rods are uranium.  They emit radiation, small particles from the atoms.  Put enough radiation into a vat of water, the water gets hot.  That becomes steam, which is used to turn turbines and generate power.  That water then goes out to the “cooling towers” – the giant curved cylinders, to become less hot, before being pumped back into the reactor for another go ’round.

The rods don’t actually touch the water.  At least, they’re not supposed to.  In a meltdown, the tubes that the rods go into, well, melt, and now the rod touches the water.  If there are any nuclear engineers reading this and would like to correct me, please do, but I think I’m basically getting it right.

If the rods touch the water, the water is then contaminated.  Containing that contaminated water, then, is what “containment” means.  Instead of going to the cooling towers and evaporating away, and thereby creating a nuclear cloud that carries over the east coast, they lock it all down in cement, and turn it into a nuclear waste storage facility.  If containment couldn’t hold, however, it would blow up.  I don’t exactly know the details on that, I think the rods continue to heat and contaminate the water, until you get a nuclear detonation.

At this point my father was an alcoholic, understandably so.  Unfortunately, he was a mean alcoholic.  My parents fought a lot, I remember bottles being thrown at me, tables being thrown at my mother, my brother stepping in before I got hit by my father, etc.  When I heard the garage door open, I’d run and hide, so I wouldn’t have to put up with him.  Things were hard.

Sometime during all of this, I remember one Saturday afternoon my father brought home a gigantic notebook.  In it were 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, three-hole punched, with numbers.  There were literally hundreds of pages.  On each page, numbers were spaced in an array, maybe 12 digits in each number, 6 or 8 to a row, and I have no idea how many rows to a page.  It was a lot of numbers.

We had an IBM PC, the kind with the dual-floppy drives in it.  He explained how I was supposed to read the numbers from the page, and type them in on whatever program it was.  I was 5 or 6 at the time.  I vividly remember him setting down a large plastic cup full of ice and coke in front of me, slapping my shoulder, and saying, “Son, don’t make a mistake, or you’ll blow up the entire east coast.  I’m going to bed.”

Yes, I’m pretty sure that was the data that was used to determine whether or not they should attempt containment.  I don’t know that for fact, though.  It could have been his sick sense of humor – but I do know he had been awake for days on end, and he was reluctantly asking me to do it because it needed to be done, I was smart and good with numbers, and he desperately needed to sleep.  He wasn’t going to be able to do it himself, and of everyone else in the house,  I was the most likely to get it right.

If you’ve gone and done your wikipedia research, you will have learned that containment was deemed not viable.  It was decided that it would eventually blow, and that they needed to “release” – yes, the contaminated water was going to be allowed to evaporate into the atmosphere, and contaminate the land.  The release was done slowly, it took over five years to completely evaporate, before they could dismantle that reactor.  I am pretty sure I handled that data.  I am concerned that I made mistakes.

I realize this isn’t a good way to see it.  I was the same age as my daughter is now – and I would never, ever, ask her to not blow up the east coast.  I love her, I have a lot of faith in her and she’s very smart and caring – but c’mon, no parent should ever do that to such a small child.  It’s completely insane.

I’ve tried finding any evidence of what harm that release may have caused.  There are no direct deaths to my knowledge.  Quite a lot of cows got some sort of cancer or tumor in their throats.  Central Pennsylvania is dairy country, there’s a lot of cows there.  The piece of data that worries me the most, though, is that consistent with the release was a dramatic spike in local miscarriages.  Something like 1100 mothers miscarried more than usual.

My mistake(s) may have cost 1,100 unborn children their lives.

I’m sorry.

This is guilt that I carry, and can’t seem to shake.  My parents eventually divorced.  My father went on to marry a woman that was on the research team.  There was suspicion that he was having an affair with her prior to the meltdown, and that perhaps he made that phone call as an “easy out.”

At some point prior to the divorce, he abducted me for a week, kept trying to convince me that I should live with him and this other lady.  He only took me – he didn’t take my older brother.  I kept trying to explain that brothers should be allowed to grow up together.  I guess I became so despondent that he took me home.  I know I wasn’t over 10 years old at the time, I was probably more like 7 or 8.

My father and I no longer talk to each other – I didn’t see a point in it.  Once the divorce occurred, he only called once a year, and almost never sent child support.  I had to tell him it wasn’t worth the effort, and that my life was a lot better once he was out of the house – I was maybe 14 at the time.

So, I’ve already unwittingly participated in a nuclear disaster.  You’ll excuse me if I don’t queue up for Theramore ever again.

This has been bothering me since the Theramore scenario was first released, actually.  I haven’t had the nerve, or the time, to sit down and write it all out, mostly because this isn’t stuff you share.  Honestly, I know that.  From years of sharing bits and pieces, I’ve learned that everyone has some pile of darkness in their past they’d rather forget about.  I’ve even been avoiding blogging for the purpose of trying to get away from feeling like I have to write this out.  But, I did have to write it.

This also finally answers Ambermist’s Meme and gets that off my chest.  Now before you go off feeling horrible, please remember, that was my childhood, not my entire life.  Since then, I have worked extremely hard at being good at what I do, being a loving father, a good husband, and enjoying my life.  Things are much better for me, now.

From → Parent/Gamer, WoW

10 Comments
  1. I am… more than overwhelmed by this post. I want to say so much more than *hugs*, but I can’t even bring myself to type anything… so, just… <3

  2. Khuruuk I swear this post wasn’t here a sec ago. My god. I hope you feel better getting off your chest, and your life now is a happy one. It seems to be. We all have tragedy in our lives, but it is how you deal with it and what you make it afterwards which shows our true courage.

    You will always be heroic to me Khuruuk :)

  3. I wanted to say so much here but words fail me. I will just say this was a wonderful read.

  4. Thank you for sharing. It was a moving read and must have been very difficult for you to write.

  5. I got to this entry via a RT by @OriginalOestrus and, as a nuclear engineering student, I wanted to offer some corrections, mostly since you asked for it, since I think it would be pretty unwarranted otherwise! I’m educated in Canadian reactors, though, so my knowledge on PWRs such as those at Three Mile Island is not the best.

    There are actually two different systems with different water in the reactor – the coolant and the moderator. In PWRs, the primary coolant is there as the moderator, and is what transfers the heat to the secondary coolant, which is what actually produces the steam to turn the turbine. What happened at Three Mile Island was a loss of coolant accident, which caused a partial meltdown.

    The fuel, however, continues to heat up through its radioactive decay. With no primary coolant, the fuel will melt its cladding (the tube around the uranium). The main concern about this is not the fuel itself, but the fission products in the form of gases. A continued meltdown would not cause a nuclear explosion, as the fuel and fission products are not weaponized. The biggest risk of any sort of explosion would be due to steam or hydrogen build-up.

    I’m not too familiar with the TMI accident, but reading the Wikipedia article, it sounds like there was a large bubble of hydrogen in the containment vessel and they decided to vent some of it into the atmosphere, which included a lot of the contaminated coolant. While the hydrogen bubble was a result of the accident, it doesn’t sound like it was a radioactive isotope of hydrogen (tritium), but simply common hydrogen. Hydrogen is so common, and many other chemical plants deal with hydrogen bubbles in their systems, as well.

    I don’t believe that your father, and thus you, would have been the only person running those calculations. There would have been other people running the same calculations, and then someone would look at all the resultant data and make the final call. I’m also skeptical on the miscarriages, but you can call me an industry shill for that one – I just know that miscarriages in women are a lot more common than most people think (don’t quote me on it, but I think it might be 1/3 of pregnancies end in miscarriage) and having something so large happen… it would have been easy to make the assumption that it had caused the miscarriage, and it was not just one of the miscarriages that just happen.

    A lot of people don’t understand that radiation is common. Bananas are actually radioactive! The background radiation levels in some parts of the planet are astoundingly high, and yet the people who live there are perfectly healthy. I had a speaker once talk about how low level radiation can actually be good for you, but you had to take him with a grain of salt (due to his demeanor, mostly – he was extremely excitable about his research). I believe that the true levels of radiation release are probably somewhere in the middle of the extremes reported.

    This got kind of long, I’m really sorry. I think you are such a strong person for going through this, though, and for sharing your experience. You sound like an amazing person, and I’m glad that you’re living a great life now.

  6. I appreciate you taking the time to provide some technical input. I’m an engineer as well, just not nuclear – pretty obvious why, in my case.

    I do know that my father was one of three people involved in making the action recommendation (whether to contain or release). While there certainly were other people involved in that, it was only two other people. The data was certainly scrutinized afterwards, obviously it was a high-profile incident. I’m sure numerous activist groups hunted for any sign of wrong-doing.

    I also know that a lot more time and research has gone into backward analyzing that data, so that you can make statements like “it wasn’t weaponized” and make it seem sensible. They genuinely didn’t know what the outcome would be, while it was under “research.”

    I fully realize if any mistake was made, it’s not my guilt to carry. I get that, logically. It’s just still a nagging doubt. The data that was distributable, though, was what was entered into a computer and saved to 1/4″ floppies. Sorry, man, computers sucked back then, there was no internet. As an engineer I’m sure you’re learning not to trust the work of others – well, me neither. I don’t know if they went back to the notebook, or only ever reviewed the digitized data.

    Ironically enough, when I moved out to Southern California over a decade ago, I moved to the east side of a town called Simi Valley. In the nearby Santa Susana pass there was a failed experiment reactor there. It’s like I can’t get away from this stuff:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Susana_Field_Laboratory#Sodium_reactor_experiment

    I’m probably the last person who needs the lecture on radiation. Accidents happen with nuclear energy. It’s a fact. Be prepared that if you continue this career track, you may need to deal with one.

    • I’m always hesitant to provide input to these sorts of things, since in this political climate, nuclear is a very touchy subject, and I’m still studying so it’s not like I’m that knowledgeable!

      I’m only certain that it wasn’t weaponized mostly due to the fact that weaponized uranium goes through an entirely different process than uranium for fuel. I’m not entirely sure *what* the process is, but through my classes, it’s mentioned that it’s much more expensive, and much more difficult. The uranium decay chains don’t turn into any form of weaponized radioactive material – and I doubt the isotope they used back then was that much different from what I study now.

      I do hope they went back to the notebook! And I know that so many things make logical sense, but they don’t leave your brain as a possibility. It sounds like at least you’ve moved on even if it seems like these events still follow you.

      I’m not even sure I want to continue in the nuclear field, but it’s what my degree’s in, and I’m in my final year! Since entering engineering, I think I actually distrust bridges more, knowing what kind of people are given degrees… When my professors talk about nuclear incidents, they always talk about how the entire field is full of idiots. I’m thinking maybe I’ll just find a way to wiggle into the medical radiation sciences instead, but even then, there are mistakes. I think in the end, it’s all about acceptable risk.

  7. TheeNickster permalink

    Three small points:

    1.) You’re not even sure your data was used in the decision.

    2.) Your specific instructions were: “Don’t blow up the east coast”. It’s been scientifically proven that the east coast is in a decidedly un-blown up state at the moment.

    3.) No one has ever presented feedback to you stating that you did, in fact, make a mistake.

    In light of all that, it’s time to allow yourself to believe that you did NOT make a mistake. Also, whenever someone questions your tanking ability in LFG, you can now respond:

    “Don’t tell me how to tank, I contained a nuclear meltdown when I was five!”

  8. Well, when you put it that way…

    Thanks! It’s been ages since I’ve written anything, and your response really cheered me up this morning when I saw it. Thanks for taking the time to drop a line.

    (One last plug, I swear: I’m moving the site to http://casuallyvicious.com for better hosting with the wonderful people at safesharkhosting.com ).

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