Authors: P. T. Deutermann
The admin building looked like every other admin building I’d been in. I told the guys to leave their weapons in their vehicle. I unstrapped my own .45 and jammed it down between the seat and the center console. I set Frick up in a harness and leash rig and took her into the building with me. I lowered the windows and instructed Frack to guard the Suburban with his life. He promptly lay down for a nap.
Once inside, we were taken to Quartermain’s office, where we were met by a thirty-something brunette hottie who’d
obviously been told to expect us. If she was impressed by the sight of two large and one medium-sized, very fit men, one of them being attached to an equally fit German shepherd, she gave no sign of it. She eyed Frick and said that the dog might present a problem. I told her that the dog was a service dog and that federal law required admission of such dogs if they were harnessed, leashed, and suitably trained.
She bent forward to address Frick. “Are you suitably trained?” she asked. Tony made a small noise in his throat when she bent forward, but Frick merely looked at her for a second and then just barely wrinkled her lip.
“Why yes you are,” the young woman said, straightening up. “We won’t mess with your dog.”
I had to admit that it had been fun watching her straighten up, and she also was no dummy. “The dog is just part of the act,” I said. “But: There is another one out front.”
“Then we’ll need two dog passes, won’t we,” she said and went to get the paperwork. Watching her walk away continued to be fun. I asked her where Mr. Quartermain was. “In a meeting,” she called over her shoulder. I asked if Mr. Trask was in the building.
Trask?” she asked, just to make sure we knew how to address His Lordship.
“Older guy, reddish gray hair, face like a hatchet? Really pleased with himself?”
She turned her face away for a moment, trying to control a smile. The nameplate on her desk read
SAMANTHA YOUNG, ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
. Tony was still standing in the doorway, the veritable picture of a man fallen deeply in lust. Tony did that often.
“Did you really want to see the colonel?” she asked.
“Actually? No. You see one colonel, you’ve kind of seen them all.”
She nodded. “I asked,” she said, “because he’s supposed to sign your security passes. Is that possibly going to be a problem?”
“Why don’t you get Dr. Quartermain to handle that,” I suggested. “Probably save everybody a lot of time.”
At that moment, Aristotle Quartermain came into the office through a second door. “Handle what, Sam?” he asked. She explained the problem, and he waved it off. “I’ll sign these passes,” he said. “Give all your info to Sam here, and then let’s talk. I need them to have vehicle passes and smart-tags, too, Sam, okay?”
We did the paper drill, took mug shots and thumbprints, and then sat down with Quartermain in his inner office while young Samantha went down the hall to emboss and laminate our ID cards. I parked Frick over in one corner, where she decided to stare at our host. He thought that was pretty cool. Pardee had to snatch Tony by the collar to keep him from following Samantha. Quartermain had noticed.
“Ain’t she something?” he said admiringly. “Hired her about a year ago when my original assistant up and moved to Florida for some strange reason. She goes for her noonday run in this little gold spandex outfit? Now half the guys at the station are out exercising.
she can shoot, too. That’s a great dog you got there. He’ll need a pass, too, though.”
“It’s a she, and Samantha is getting the passes.”
Tony had closed his eyes, probably trying to visualize the spandex outfit. Tony’s idea of exercise was to stow two cases of beer in his fridge, not just one, but that might change. Pardee helpfully told him to stop drooling.
I told Quartermain about Special Agent Caswell’s visit, noting that that was the second time we’d had an “exchange of views,” and that between Trask and the FBI, the hospitality angle for H&S Investigations was disappointing.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m not too surprised. Let me bring you up to speed.”
He told us that the first attempt to retrieve radioactive particles from Allie’s body had been a bust, which corroborated what Creeps had told us. The docs were pretty sure that whatever it was, water had been the medium and alpha particles the radiation vector. Then he took us all over to the visitors’ center, which had been closed to the public in the wake of the 9/11 disaster. There he showed us a diorama of the power station, a mockup of the control room, and some
animated flowcharts that showed how the reactor system worked.
“As you can see, the nuclear reaction provides the heat. Some of the water that cools that reaction boils into steam and goes over here to the power plant, where the steam spins a turbine, which spins a generator, which makes big-time juice. The spent steam goes down here to a condenser, where cooling water from the river turns it from vapor to liquid water, and then it’s pumped back into the reactor vessel, where the whole cycle is repeated.”
“And that water is radioactive?” Pardee asked.
“The whole reactor vessel and everything in it is highly radioactive, but only because it’s an integral part of an ongoing nuclear fission reaction. It’s also pressurized—it’s a boiler, after all. So between the heat, the radiation, and the steam, it’s not something you can just reach into and get yourself a container of water. You’d be dead in about an hour if you tried.”
“So where’s this moonpool you talked about?” I asked.
He took us to another wall chart diagram, which was titled
THE REFUELING SYSTEM
. “The technical name is the spent fuel storage pool. As fuel elements outlive their usefulness, they’re taken down from the reactor core and transferred underneath the reactor building to an adjacent building, which contains the storage pool. There they stay until the government gets a permanent storage site up and running.”
“And that area’s radioactive?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “It’s a lot like the reactor vessel itself, except the fuel elements aren’t bundled close together because we no longer want them to create a fission reaction. But the more recently they’ve been put into the moonpool, the hotter they are.”
“So what killed Allie could have come from there, as opposed to the main reactor itself?”
He paused for a moment. “
the stuff came from a power plant, it is much more likely to have come out of a moonpool than the reactor vessel, for the basic reason that the moonpool is not pressurized. As I said, the reactor vessel is a closed, very hot, radioactive, and pressurized system. The pool’s a
pool—atmospheric pressure, forty-five, fifty feet deep, a little scary-looking, but it’s just a pool.”
“Can we see it?” I asked.
“Gonna show you the whole shebang, Mr. Investigator, soon as those ID cards are ready.”
Three hours later, we returned to the admin building, following an extensive tour of the power plant. Quartermain himself conducted the tour, and it was obvious he knew his stuff as a nuclear engineer. We’d hit that I-believe button several times in the course of the tour. The shepherd attracted lots of stares, but most people in the plant seemed to be paying close attention to business, which was comforting.
We hadn’t actually seen either reactor—there were two at Helios, Unit One and Unit Two—and, as Ari pointed out, one never did want to actually see the reactor, because that would mean that its containment had been breached. The last persons to have seen an operating reactor had been at Chernobyl, and they were all very dead.
“You see one when it’s being built and installed, and you see it again when the plant gets decommissioned. Otherwise, you don’t want to see it.”
“Why do power plants get decommissioned?” I’d asked.
“Metallurgy,” he’d responded. “After twenty, twenty-five years of living in the energy flux of a uranium fission reaction, metal alloys can change state. The piping, the valves, the pumps, the fuel control mechanisms, even the instrumentation sensors become embrittled or otherwise metallurgically altered, sometimes to the point where the materials they were made out of no longer have the strength characteristics they had when they were brand-new.”
“So they shut ’em down, permanently? As opposed to replacing all that stuff?”
“Cheapest option,” he said. “The military does the same thing—they refuel their ship plants once, maybe twice, but when a warship’s reactor systems wear out, they scrap the whole boat. I’ve seen satellite shots of the Soviet naval bases with entire submarines rusting in the mudflats because the
reactors gave out. Two, three billion dollars a copy. Talk about nuclear waste. Incredible.”
The moonpool had looked just the way Ari had described it: a large, deep concrete structure filled with ethereal blue-green water. There were detachable glass partition walls along the sides, and steel railings at the base of those walls. The dim shapes glimmering down at the bottom were the spent fuel, encased in gleaming metal tubes and arranged in a geometric shape that prevented fission from restarting in the pool.
“This is the area that worries Snake Trask,” Ari had told us. “In the other type of power plant, the pools are below-ground. As you can see, this one is mostly aboveground. A commercial airplane crash here could theoretically split the walls and dump the water.”
“And that would be bad?”
“Yes, because we’d probably get a fire or a hydrogen explosion and a big radiation release. There are systems in place to refill the pool; that’s one of the reasons these BWR plants are positioned near big bodies of water. But still, the moonpool is probably the most fragile part of a boiling water reactor plant.”
It was Colonel Trask himself who was waiting for us, or rather Ari, when we got back to Ari’s office following our atomic walkabout. He did not appear to be a happy camper. He demanded to speak to Dr. Quartermain in private, but the closed door didn’t afford them much privacy. As we stood around in the reception area trying not to stare at the lovely Samantha, we could hear Trask detonating on the subject of issuing clearance and physical access to people like us. I couldn’t hear what Ari was saying in reply, but, whatever it was, it wasn’t mollifying Trask very much. It was also clear from all the racket that the security chief and his people intended to make our stay on the plant grounds difficult.
I quietly told Pardee and Tony to go on back to the beach house and wait for me there, and meanwhile to see what they could do about getting us a boat.
“What kind of boat?” Tony asked.
“Twenty-footer or thereabouts, shallow draft, inboard engine, with a radar set if possible. Not for the open ocean. Strictly for river work. Try the marinas around Southport, or maybe Oak Island.”
“We drive, or they drive?” Pardee asked.
“We drive,” I said.
It sounded like the choleric colonel was winding down in there, so I asked Samantha if she could escort my people to the egress. I sat down in one corner of the reception area with Frick parked next to me on her leash. Trask glared at the two of us as he stalked out of Quartermain’s office. He was wearing green Army utilities this time and a large sidearm. A moment later, Ari appeared in his doorway and motioned for me to come in.
“Was that fun?” I asked, shutting his door behind me. If he was perturbed, he didn’t show it. He waved me to a chair.
“It’s all he knows how to do,” he said. “Shout and bluster. You know, asses will be kicked, hides flayed, things will be turned every which way but loose—all the standard Army bullshit.”
“He works for you—why don’t you indulge in some of the standard bullshit right back at him?”
“Because he’s useful,” he said. “He’s got a perpetual red-ass, and he is completely unpredictable. Since nobody knows where he’s going to turn up next, he tends to keep his
my people on their toes.”
“I can’t imagine nuclear engineers putting up with verbal abuse like that,” I said.
“Yeah, the hoo-ah stuff doesn’t play in technical security, because the assumption there is that we’re all focused on the same thing: keeping the dragon in its cave. Physical security assumes the good guys are in here, while everyone out there is a bad guy until proven otherwise.”
“Why the perpetual red-ass?”
Ari ran a hand over his gleaming scalp. “He’s convinced the country’s gone soft, especially on this war on terrorism. America has lost its manhood, is embracing appeasement,
throwing away good soldiers’ lives in shitholes like Iraq and Afghanistan, paying court to billionaire Hollywood marshmallows, stuff like that.”
“He may have a point there,” I said.
“Yeah, well, it’s a democracy, isn’t it. Personally, I think it’s more of a classic case of a man confusing the deterioration of his own aging faculties with the rest of the nation. You know, grumpy old men. Old guys are always saying everything’s going to hell. Not like it used to be in my day, by God, when I had to walk three miles to school through ten feet of snow, et cetera.”
“How old is Trask?”
“Mid-sixties, actually.” He saw my surprise. “I know—he doesn’t look it.”
“Where’d he get the nickname?”
“He apparently likes snakes. You know, some kind of offbeat hobby.”
We talked contract and agreed on the broad provisions of a statement of work. “I have a request,” I said when we were done with that.