Critical Excursion

24 Sep

100 words For Friday Fictioneers based on the photo prompt below. Those of you familiar with my weekly stories will know that I try to refrain from overlong introductions. Today is no different, but for those interested in the subject, I have added a short afterward. I highly recommend that you don’t read it (useless you’re curious and have the time). The story is accurate and stands alone.



Copyright Marie Gail Stratford

The soft glow flared to a brilliant, beautiful blue. Then darkness fell.

Above the turmoil of boiling water the phone at the end of the catwalk rings. My fingers never lose contact with the handrails as I find my way there.

“Rick, we’ve got a high radiation alarm in pond twenty-one,” my supervisor says. “What’s happening?”

“Criticality incident. Center section fuel rods.”

“You certain?”

“Cherenkov flare. Heat pulse. And I’m blind.”

“Can you self-evacuate?”


“Probably, but I can’t outrun what’s coming. Don’t send anyone. I’ll just rest here.”









Fuel rod cooling pool




Nuclear power is an esoteric field, full of jargon and unwieldy terms usually mangled by newscasters, but to those in the industry it is a pure science, stark yet somehow elegant. It is also a slippery beast that every now and then escapes from the mechanical prisons we try to confine it to. When this happens, it happens fast. Invisible high-energy sub-atomic particles rip through fragile DNA and other cellular structures and do irreparable damage in the blink of an eye. The human machine can keep running for a while, depending on the full body radiation dose it has received, but all the myriad chemical reactions required to sustain life are adversely affected and eventually the body grinds to a halt in an ugly and painful death. All nuclear industry workers know the risks and work hard to minimize them, but for the unlucky few down through history, being near a critical excursion is like winning the lottery in reverse.

And since you’re still here, I think it germane to note that our sun is a fusion reactor in the sky and that we are being irradiated every day by it. Radiation from the decay of Carbon-14 in the long bones of your legs is a significant part of your lifetime dose. If you linger in Grand Central Terminal for a day, radiation from the granite used in its construction will add to your lifetime dose. Fly much? Airline pilots have much higher lifetime doses of radiation than those of us who work on the ground. In my three years aboard the USS-Sargo, a fast attack submarine, I received exactly 1.625 rem of whole body radiation.

Radiation is electromagnetic energy. We are awash in it day and night, so much so that our eyes evolved to detect radiation in the visible spectrum. Nuclear power is a tool of man. If there is a danger associated with it, it stems wholly from our failure to maintain adequate safeguards. Educate yourself, know your physics and above all, don’t listen to the talking heads on the TV screen. Go figure it out for yourself.


Still here?

74 Responses to “Critical Excursion”

  1. Sandra September 24, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    Excellent! The preamble, the story, the post-script. I liked the sound of the main character – a man with a sense of inevitability and innate dignity. Reminds me of someone…

    • dmmacilroy September 24, 2014 at 8:44 am #

      Dear Sandra,

      Thanks for such generous praise. We need to get together and swap stories over one or two of the bottles from your story and well away from the pool of mine.



  2. rochellewisoff September 24, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Dear Doug,

    The contrast between soft glow, beautiful blue and Cherenkov flare is both blinding and enlightening. As a writer and a researcher, you show us all how it’s done. Love the title.


    Rochelle SD

    • dmmacilroy September 24, 2014 at 9:16 am #

      Dear Rochelle,

      IGTC. Thank you for such a nice comment. (Critical excursion is usually what other Friday Fictioneers say when I show up in their comment section, but in this case it worked well for my story.) I don’t think I can show you how it’s done, Rochelle. Your story this week was so good that I have to raise a glass and say, “I’ll drink to that!”



  3. Claire Fuller September 24, 2014 at 9:14 am #

    I have to agree with Rochelle, I love how you start with beauty and end with terror – really well told. And I also have to agree with Sandra – you’ve drawn for us a wonderful character in such a few words. I’d like to know more about him.

    But, and this might be just how my mind works (!) – I stumbled over the word ‘self-evacuate’ which pulled me out of the story just for a moment.


    • dmmacilroy September 24, 2014 at 9:21 am #

      Dear Claire,

      I know what you mean and appreciate the feedback re that word. I used it because that’s part of the lingo/jargon of the industry and because it saved me some much needed words. I know you know the drill in that regard. Thanks for giving my story a look see and commenting so kindly. I’m headed your way now.



  4. Lauraine Ayers-Briel September 24, 2014 at 9:16 am #


    Beautiful, peaceful, god damned resignation, Captain Hope you are well



    • dmmacilroy September 24, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

      Dear Lauraine,

      Seeing your name makes me well. So good to hear your voice again. (One of the best comments I’m going to get on this story. Thanks.)



  5. Snow's Fissures and Fractures September 24, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    You captured the beauty and the terror of both the nuclear power and the human nature so well.

    • dmmacilroy September 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      Dear Lore,

      It’s a wild and wooly world we’ve been born into. Have to watch everything closely or it will rise up and bite us. Thanks for reading and commenting.



  6. Björn Rudberg (brudberg) September 24, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Excellent.. for me the postscript was not needed.. indeed it looks like Cerenkov radiation… and with the right knowledge you would know that you are dead.. the only remaining thing would be to leave with the best ever legacy.

    • dmmacilroy September 24, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

      Dear Bjorn,

      Just this once, I felt the postscript would answer most questions that those not as familiar with the subject might have. Very first thing I thought of when I saw that picture was the surreal blue of Cherenkov radiation. Working on that legacy part as we speak. Thank you for dropping by to read and comment.



  7. patriciaruthsusan September 24, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Doug, You don’t have to warn me about nuclear energy. I’ve always been against it. We were living in Pennsylvania when the 3-Mile Island scare took place. You just pray everything will be okay. There’s not much more the ordinary person can do at that point. Great story. I read everything you wrote on the post. Goodness knows how much radiation I’ve soaked up. I was a teacher when they were still giving us yearly chest exrays for TB. Also, I remember the machines in the shoe stores to x-ray people’s feet. Well written as always. —Susan

    • dmmacilroy September 24, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

      Dear Susan,

      Fluoroscopes. I wonder how many cancers sprang to life as a result of that marketing fad. As I said, we’re awash in radiation. The trick is to minimize your exposure to the high energy variety. Thank you for reading and commenting.



  8. aliciajamtaas September 24, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    There is a feeling of peace within the terror of this tale. From the soft lights, to pond twenty-one. And I love the list Cherenkov flare. Heat pulse. And I’m blind. So matter-of-fact in its horror. Well done Doug. And, yes, nuclear anything is scary beyond belief.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:10 am #

      Dear Alicia,

      Thank you for such a generous comment. I was aiming for it, but you let me know I hit the target.

      Mahalo and Aloha,


  9. David Stewart September 24, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    What a masterful piece of writing. I did read the afterword, but you’re right that the story is better by itself. I knew where it was going by the third paragraph and I read on with dread but also admiration at the main character’s bravery. You conveyed a lot in just a few words. Wonderful story.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:11 am #

      Dear David,

      Thanks for reading and commenting so kindly. Coming from you, your praise means a lot. Mahalo.



  10. sustainabilitea September 24, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    It appears all my possible responses have already been eloquently expressed and I’m even relatively early. Ahhh, well. Reminds me of those people in Japan, willing to go in at whatever cost to themselves.


    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:12 am #

      Dear Janet,

      I hope this finds you safe and not tangled up in airport snafus. Thanks for the kind words.



      • sustainabilitea October 1, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

        It finds me safe, sound, and pleasantly buzzed on champagne in f
        Dance. 🙂

      • sustainabilitea October 1, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

        Drat! Not the champagne, but trying to type on an iPad. Ahh, well. I’m “in France”, not “in f dance.” 🙂

        now on the laptop, where keys are where they should be

  11. elmowrites September 24, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    Wow, Doug. This story is moving, not least because of the grace and bravery of the protagonist, but also because of the depth and clarity of the writing. The break did you good, you’re on top form these days!
    Aloha, Jennifer

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:14 am #

      Dear Jennifer,

      Thanks for saying so. I used to live in the story’s arena, so it came easily. I appreciate you stopping by.



  12. lingeringvisions by Dawn September 24, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    Interesting and informative; my favorite kind of story. Thanks Doug.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:15 am #

      Dear Dawn,

      Don’t forget short, too. Thanks for visiting.



  13. JKBradley September 24, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

    All so some kid can heat up a couple burritos and then game on his X-box.

    Well done, Sir.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:16 am #

      Dear JK,

      When the crash comes those kids will be pedaling bicycles to generate lights for their flats. Good for something after all. Thanks for reading and commenting.



  14. patrickprinsloo September 24, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    Great story and thanks for the follow-up briefing. I agree that the dangers stem from our inadequacies, but inadequate we are and so unless we really really invest in safety at the expense of short term profits, we are going to be badly bitten on the bum (a nuclear industry technical term).

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:18 am #

      Dear Patrick,

      You are well acquainted with nuclear industry terms. I’m glad my bum is out of range now. Thanks for visiting.



  15. DCTdesigns September 24, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    Doug this was wonderful. The brilliant blue and the stark reality of the workers demise, such bravery. I also enjoyed the description afterwards though now I’m even more freaked out about my radiation exposure this week. Just had my fourth X-ray, four more to go by Sunday. Weee.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:19 am #

      Dear Dana,

      Dental x-rays are pretty benign now so don’t worry too much. All that tanning you did as a teenager though, not so good. Thanks for reading and commenting.



      • DCTdesigns October 2, 2014 at 4:03 am #

        This is true. I keep waiting for the years of baby oil and lemon juice to catch up with me. Unfortunately my X-rays weren’t dental but full chest/abdomen. So honestly I’m glowing. 😉

  16. JackieP September 24, 2014 at 7:36 pm #

    A true learning experience from start to finish. Thank you for this. Excellent.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:19 am #

      Dear Jackie,

      Thanks for saying so.



  17. The Writer's Village September 25, 2014 at 2:02 am #

    I don’t want to over-reach here, Doug,
    but ditto on everyone else’s comments.

    I especially liked your post script. Randy

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:20 am #

      Dear Randy,

      Thanks for getting on board the comment train. i appreciate it.



  18. wmqcolby September 25, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    Hey, suspenseful! I LOVE it, Doug! All the good stuff of science rolled into a very taught and dramatic whole. A lot of stuff gets written about nuclear radiation but nothing of any substance. The explanation at the bottom is truly frightening. Those guys must be crazy, in my opinion, to be working in that field. But, I knew about the sun and what a miracle it is to have all that power.
    Thanks for the enlightening.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:21 am #

      Dear Kent,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Living in space has its drawbacks, but it beats the alternative.



  19. wildbilbo September 25, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Nice – great linking the image of stacked wine bottles the grid of fuel rods. Using the dialogue to drive most of the story was very effective too.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:22 am #

      Dear WB,

      Have to use dialog whenever possible, right? Keeps it less stilted. Thanks for commenting.



  20. shanx September 25, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    Loved it. Like the impact I am left with in few words. Great 🙂

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:28 am #

      Dear Shanx,

      Thanks for reading and commenting and for accepting my comment on your story with grace and forbearance.



  21. plaridel September 25, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    it’s amazing what you can write in 100 words. well done.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:30 am #

      Dear Plaridel,

      Thanks for the kind words. I give it my best shot or I don’t publish. I’m glad you liked it.



  22. margirene September 26, 2014 at 1:40 am #

    This is a really gripping story. I’m awash with grief for Rick’s predicament and admiration for his stoicism. He’s a succinctly drawn and believable character. I appreciated the factual information too. How can human beings ever be trusted with such a powerful resource as nuclear energy?

  23. dmmacilroy September 26, 2014 at 3:31 am #

    Dear Margirene,

    Well, we’ve been playing with fire and electricity and TNT for ages….

    Thanks for your kind comments re my story. If humans could be talked into going back to simpler time, perhaps the demand for power would not drive us to attempt to harness nuclear power. I think if you add up all the fatalities from coal mine collapses or oil rig explosions I think you’ll see that it can be argued that nuclear power is a lesser evil…for a bit…but then you start to run the calculations of half lives for nuclear waste stored at yucca flats and it gets more complicated. The exclusion zone surrounding Fukushima is another thing to consider. Imagine if Phoenix or Oahu were suddenly off limits for the next two hundred years.

    Makes solar power (which, as I said, is a result of fusion) look really good.

    Humans… sheesh.



  24. Joanna (Lazuli Portals Trilogy) September 26, 2014 at 9:05 am #

    Beauty, pragmatism, sacrifice, and drama, all in 100 words or less. You’re a Master of the craft, Doug!

    And I guess I might’ve earned some brownie points for getting 13 solar panels installed on our roof last month. 🙂


    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:31 am #

      Dear Joanna,

      Nice to read you this month. And yes, major points awarded to you and eventually, your check book for the great work you did on your roof.



  25. draliman September 26, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    Another person who saw the photo and thought “nuclear reactor” 🙂
    A wonderful story – I love the acceptance the worker feels as he realises that it’s over for him.
    I did read the bit afterwards (as a physicist I was very interested ).

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:33 am #

      Dear Draliman,

      Physicist, eh? No wonder you saw what I did in the prompt. Did I get the afterward right. (Better than media sound bites at least?) Thanks for reading and commenting.



      • draliman October 1, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

        Nuclear physics isn’t my speciality but it sounded right to me! I found it very interesting.

  26. kindredspirit23 September 26, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    Glad I decided I would find the time to stop by!

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:34 am #

      Dear Scott,

      I’m glad you did, too.

      Mahalo and Aloha,


  27. Alice Audrey September 26, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    Excellent story well told. I’ll catch the video later.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:35 am #

      Dear Alice,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.



  28. K.Z. September 26, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    superb story, Doug. so much drama in 100 words.
    and thank you for the post-script.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:35 am #

      Dear K.Z.,

      Thank you for saying so. Trying to keep up with you.



  29. kirizar September 26, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    It read very true. Either you actually work with nuclear materials, or you are a very detailed researcher. It is very hard to fake that kind of lingo, so kudos for capturing it, but using just enough to engage without overwhelming. I am now humbled that you read mine. My hat is doffed and I relinquish the spotlight to you.

    • dmmacilroy December 23, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

      Dear Kirizar,

      I’m sorry that I did not reply sooner but I have only just now found your comment in the spam file of my WordPress blog. It is quite irritating because I never imagine that anyone’s comments, let alone yours, would go to a spam file.

      Yes, I worked in the industry in my youth. Do you? And of course I would read your work. Whenever it shows up in my feed I try to lend careful eye and an open mind to reading. Thank you for doing the same, and again, my apologies for replying so late.



      • kirizar January 1, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

        I’m afraid my knowledge regarding nuclear materials is limited to watching the Hunt for Red October with Sean Connery and the unfortunate byproducts of an occasional massive failure in the kitchen. (Much like Sean, I produce an occasional bomb!)

  30. Dreamer of Dreams September 27, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    A resigned hero in a terrible tragedy. Beautifully narrated, terse dialogue and intriguing jargon. Thank you for the post-story facts!
    And thank you for your appreciation of so many writers — your thoughtful words reveal a deep, generous person and storyteller.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:39 am #

      Dear Vijaya,

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting so kindly. I believe in telling it like it is. Every now and then I alienate someone, but most of the time I try to tell writers when their work is good. Your comment made me almost cry, big softie that I am.



  31. talesfromthemotherland September 27, 2014 at 1:29 am #

    “Ground control to Major Tom…” This piece really brought that song up for me, Doug. Really tight writing and excellent story telling. I found myself totally absorbed. The post-script was eloquent and very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to share all of that! Wonderful post.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      Dear Dawn,

      Thanks for wading through the postscript. I tried to warn you, but I guess you’re a glutton for punishment. Mahalo.



      • talesfromthemotherland October 1, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

        No doubt, I’m a glutton, Doug… but your writing is always a treat! 😉

  32. Nan Falkner September 27, 2014 at 6:38 am #

    Dear Doug, Absolutely wonderful piece. Mike & I went inside the nuclear power plant in Arkansas over 40 years ago and it was fascinating – it was under construction and one of our friends was an engineer student in school with Mike. They were building the dome and I felt like a tiny ant inside of it. We have always agreed with Nuclear Energy because (as long as everyone does their job correctly) the best power for the buck. Well done! Nan 🙂

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:42 am #

      Dear Nan,

      You’re right, we ought to be able to keep the genie in the bottle. It’s those moments when it escapes that make the heart race…

      Thanks for reading and commenting.



  33. rgayer55 September 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    Dear Doug,
    I always learn something of science and the real world when I come here. Not only that, but you make it personal, which makes it easier for my pea brain to absorb and relate to. Wasn’t it Geo. Dubya Bush who proclaimed, “say it with me people, Nu-cle-ar.”

    • rochellewisoff September 29, 2014 at 12:11 am #

      I think that was nookyelar, Russell.

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:44 am #

      Dear Russell,

      Thanks for the kudos. I try to keep it real…and light when I can, but this one, well, it was hard to keep light. Tough subject.

      G.W.B. used to infuriate me with his doofus pronunciation of that word. He set back people’s opinion of American sixty or seventy years.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.



  34. Oliana @Tracesofthesoul September 28, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    What a gripping story and the post-script most informative!

    • dmmacilroy October 1, 2014 at 9:45 am #

      Dear Oliana,

      Thank you so much for saying so.



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