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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?