United States – 16:00 Eastern Standard Time – South Texas Nuclear Project Electric Generating Station, Bay City, southwest of Houston
Matt Mills stood off to one side, making sure all the class could see the massive bulk of the nuclear reactor through the plate glass viewing window. Every January, the plant opened up its doors to the local Lake Jackson and Bay City schools to show them how the electricity was generated that kept their smartphones and TVs on the go 24/7.
Today was a group of twenty five eleventh graders, which in itself was slightly odd. It was rare that older kids had trips like this one organised for them. Their teachers knew that as soon as they hit puberty the grouchy, truculent expressions could easily morph into mischief and sometimes something much more sinister, at the flick of a hormonal switch. Not a good recipe if it happened in the biggest nuclear plant in Texas.
But Matt knew enough about the tough job prospects in the area, especially after the downturn in the oil price that had sucked out many Houston jobs, to recognise future potential workers for the plant when he saw them. Mind you, even though they were now looking slightly less bored, his first glance told him few of those standing in front of him were obvious naturals for the next intake of qualified jobseekers.
He’d already taken the schoolgroup around the main generating hall in the six billion dollar nuclear plant, but he knew what they were beside now was what they were all intrigued in, and some even a little bit scared of. They were inside one of the big domes, the core of the whole nuclear reactor plant.
‘Around the US we have a hundred nuclear power reactors in 30 states, and they generate nearly twenty percent of the country’s electricity. Some people have said in the past that nuclear power might be dangerous, but there’s not been a single civilian death involved with the operation of a nuclear power plant since the US first nuclear plant went online over 60 years ago, That makes nuclear power one of the safest forms of energy in the country.’ Matt paused, he knew that bit always made anyone from the management team happy that might be standing in the wings.
This big beast here at what we call the South Texas Nuclear Project, or STNP for short, is one of our two big Westinghouse four loop Pressurised Water Rectors. It’s cooled by the huge reservoir next to us and has been running continually since eighty nine.
‘This plant is massive as you’ve seen today, and obviously took a while to construct. We are a bit unusual here at the STNP, as continued being built when the Three Mile Island event happened. It’s fair to say that most other nuclear plants at the early stages of construction got canned when that event happened.’
He scanned the small group of eleventh graders in front of him, many of whom looked like they’d like to be away home this late on a Thursday afternoon. Most of their faces still looked blank.
‘Ok, so I don’t see many lights coming on there.’ Matt paused for the inevitable cautious laughs.
‘A bit before your time I guess. So Three Mile Island is another nuclear power plant, and its lessons have been a focus for the US nuclear industry for almost forty years. Back in seventy nine, in Pennsylvania, they had a partial meltdown over there in one of their two reactors. Anyone know what a meltdown is?’
‘Is that when Mrs Hughes gets her rag on?’ A surly face with a sly grin appeared at the back of the group, with a deep tan that spoke of Mexican ancestry somewhere along the way.
‘It’s a bit more serious than that.’ Matt tried to look stern, but that quip was kinda funny.
‘Three mile Island is the closest we’ve come to a disaster at a nuclear plant in the US. They had two generating units which had what’s called a closed-cycle cooling system using two big cooling tower that look a bit like a nearly finished vase on a potter’s wheel. They’re towers that cool the excess steam from the plant by sucking up air from an opening at the bottom, with some water from the river to replace the water lost in evaporation in the towers. This whole system keeps the reactor core cool, as it’s running all the time. There was a cooling system malfunction at Three Mile that caused a partial meltdown of the reactor core and a small amount of radioactivity got released. Nothing serious and a long time ago, but it made national news.’
‘We’ve got a fantastic safety record now but, if I’m honest, back then things weren’t so tight. It was a big wake-up call for the US nuclear industry, and we’ve been really hot on safety ever since, as you’d expect. Unlike Three Mile Island, we don’t need cooling towers here, which makes the whole plant a lot simpler and safer.’
‘You said safe but didn’t you have some sort of a safety whistleblower here?’ The room suddenly went quiet. All eyes were on him now. This sounded juicy to teenage ears and could be decent local gossip for a post-visit social media post.
Matt sensed the mood in the enormous concrete dome had altered perceptibly. He didn’t know where this question was coming from, or what he had read or Googled, but what the teenager had said was true. They’d had a few Escalated Enforcement Action dockets issued to them over the years from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for discrimination against staff that had reported legitimate safety concerns. Back in eighty five they’d had a supervisor that had flagged up concerns to SAFETEAM, the Houston safety watchdog. He’d saw some quality and compliance issues that needed fixing, and was supposed to have been able to say things anonymously to SAFETEAM. It didn’t quite work out like that, and he’d been fired. Congress had then fixed the federal nuclear whistleblower law to provide protection to try and stop retaliation against anyone who, with the best of intentions, still wanted to do the right thing.
Matt looked at the kid, who was keeping his gaze steady, but he appeared interested rather than combative. Still, while he looked innocent enough, Matt knew he’d have to tread carefully, as bad rumours about nuclear power plants never panned out well with management.
He started cautiously, ‘Well whistleblower is a bit of an emotive term. There was a guy here that spotted things that weren’t quite in line with procedure. Nothing dangerous I should say, but enough for him to have concerns. He mentioned them to the local watchdog and it worked, the issues got fixed.’ He stopped to see if he was out of the woods, and was promptly rescued by a lanky blond-haired kid in scruffy jeans. He had a look that simply said ‘geek’.
‘But wasn’t that film China Syndrome based on Three Mile Island?’
‘Actually, No,’ said Matt ‘A few of you might have heard of the film just mentioned. It was a nuclear disaster movie that came out in 1979. Everyone assumes it was about Three Mile Island, but spookily enough it first screened ten days before Three Mile Island was hit the news. People forgot that the film was before Three Mile, and the whole of American opinion then got swayed by what happened at the plant. To be honest I think that was all to the good, and that’s why we’re proud of the way our industry runs now.’
‘But what most people also don’t know is that no-one died or was even injured at Three Mile. The plant’s still running and making electricity for a million Houston houses with its other reactor unit, and it will be right up until 2019, when it gets to the end of its natural operating life.’
Matt knew he had just dodged the biggest curve-ball from the kids, but everyone in the group looked relieved. No-one wanted to think something on their doorstep was going to blow up and try to kill them any time soon.
‘Well, I guess that’s it for today then.’ None too quiet sighs of relief floated from the group. ‘Unless anyone’s got any questions of course?’ Groans all round.
Geeky kid raised a hand. Someone tried to grab it, but everyone could see they were too late. ‘OK, the guy over there,’ said Matt. ‘But I’m not great at answering any more old film questions.’
‘What would happen here if all of the cooling systems broke down here?’
It was the inevitable movie disaster scenario Matt heard from almost every teenage group since he’d started doing the plant tours.
‘Well, all we need is cooling water and our control systems to keep the reactor core at the right temperature, to make sure we can generate the maximum amount of electricity. We’ve got backup cooling systems here in case one of them goes down, but that’s extremely unlikely. All the cooling systems run off a small amount of the electricity we generate from the reactor, so we’re actually a completely self-contained unit.’
‘The whole plant is pretty well fail-safe, and it’s all designed to keep you all of the quarter of a million of you we supply warm and toasty over winter.’
‘So, if there are no more questions, I’ll take you back to the reception area where I’m sure your Principal is keen to see you all in one piece.’
Silence, then a rush for the double airlock door sited in the corner of the huge industrial space they had been viewing the reactor from. Matt knew that, apart from a few science dweebs, by the time Monday came they’d have probably forgotten everything he said.
He checked his sheet for the group numbers and wandered over to the young teacher that had been shepherding them throughout the one hour tour.
‘So what did you think?’ Matt was always keen to get a bit of feedback on his tours, so he could try and make it a bit more exciting for the next group due the following morning.
During the tour their tall blonde teacher had been floating around at the back, making sure no-one wandered off or made a general nuisance of themselves. Now he was close, Matt took in her bright blue-grey eyes and casual stance. From her gentle flowing gait he thought she might have been a model or dancer in her younger days, but to be fair a few extra years and lines had given her an interesting face that he immediately thought was pretty sexy. Mid-thirties maybe he guessed. But he was at work, so let’s have professional Matt today, please, he thought.
The teacher that Matt had been pondering over, standing at the back of the group, took in his tough blue work overalls. Maybe a little too tight in places, so that could mean he’d worked out a bit in the gym, or maybe just worked on a few weekend pizzas. He was tall, with broad shoulders and blue eyes that sort of twinkled around the edges with a sly and yet kind smile that she guessed wouldn’t take too much to coax into a laugh. She judged he was likely in his mid-thirties, but he had that sort of craggy outdoor face that seemed to age better than that of most men. She realised she wanted to hear his laugh now and, while he had his body turned and pointing at some piece of pipe or other, checked that he had no wedding ring. Nothing, so tick in the box there, as she knew most people round this area wore a band if they were married. His other more clothed credentials? Couldn’t tell yet. But looked like she’d made the right decision, and there was no doubt that this Matt Mills was a good specimen of manhood standing right in her eye line.
It had been three weeks earlier during the Christmas shopping rush that Tina Randall had done a rapid double take as she spotted his head and chunky shoulders in the local mall. He was cruising the shelves at a fast pace and clearly on a mission as far as his own shop went. She wasn’t shy in making snap decisions, and a close follow-track down the biscuit aisle confirmed her initial impressions. He’d had to come to a rapid halt as his trolley headed across an intersection of the shelves, just as an old lady with white hair hobbled round the corner. He’d stopped dead and was bending down, talking to her in an increasingly loud voice. All she could here was ‘What?’ What?’ in a strident voice. He looked fabulous, and nothing like the usual male fodder around Bay City. She’d already tracked him through five aisles, keeping a steady distance just like the baddies in cars you always saw do in the movies. She’d paused briefly with the thought that it might not be very romantic, following a man who was currently on his way down the hardware aisle. But then she’d also learnt from experience that the way a man did something as simple as high speed Christmas shopping gave some pretty good clues to the way he might perform with other more exciting, but no less demanding tasks. Interesting, and he was pretty damn hot. She’d been unceremoniously dumped after four years by her lazy boyfriend Randy, over what he’d said was his treat, a burger lunch. Tina looked back down the aisle past a collection of hammers and hardware. Yes, she decided this man looked like he knew what to do with his own hardware and was going to be her next project, regardless yet of how it might pan out.
A bit of online research after a local Christmas with her family in Houston, and then some polite asking around amongst her friends over raunchy New Year drinks at her local bar, and she had a name and even where he worked. She was a bit surprised to find out he was a managing supervisor at the local nuclear plant. She’d first suspected, rather disappointingly, that he probably managed a bunch of engineers, But she was then intrigued when she discovered from carefully crafted questions with her girlfriends, often over a few too many Proseccos on their part, that he did a lot of public facing work and plant tours. So that meant he didn’t just look good, you could probably have a conversation with him afterwards. Assuming she ever got to the afterwards that is. A further week of web research had yielded little further. He obviously wasn’t into social media that much, so the real problem was finding her ‘in’, and she had no idea how to arrange a chance meeting with this hunk, especially without coming across as a bit of a weirdo.
So the annual flyer that had appeared on her desk at the school from the STNP, as the nuclear power facility liked to call itself, seemed like manna from heaven. She’d forgotten they did Winter visits in school term, and she had to calm herself as she dashed to the phone. She was talking way too rapidly, and in slightly breathless tones from her excitement, as she booked in her class for the next plant visit. The visitor organiser must have thought her a little odd, she guessed. But what the hell, first on the list for a middle of January tour.
And now Matt was finally here in front of her, and he certainly looked as good and well-built close up as when she’d seen him a fortnight earlier. She had to play this really carefully. He obviously had no idea of her designs on him, and she didn’t want to scare him off this early on in the game. Well, let’s face it, all her girlfriends knew it was a game, didn’t they? They might call Bay City the ‘gateway to the great outdoors’, but it had a real lack of local talent.
Years of online dating with dull and uninspiring partners like Randy, had also given her a real taste for a new challenge. She was still young, thirty four, and pretty attractive so her friends told her. She also had enough about her to recognise that if she didn’t do something pretty damn soon, she’d be left on the shelf with the old maids that she saw sitting around the local park, jabbering away to each other over biscuits and the bread they fed to the birds.
With a slight smile Tina canted her head slightly and looked at Matt from under her blonde fringe. Yes she’d seen that English Princess, Lady Diana do it, and also knew what it did to men. Matt’s pupils widened, just fractionally enough for her to spot her move was the right one. So, initial gambit put her in with a shot, and check-mate in three moves if she played this right, and with the speed chess tactics she had planned yesterday at her kitchen table.
‘I know we’ve not met before but I gather you’re Matt?’
Matt looked at her. Close up she had a really good complexion and her blonde hair shone under the large line of arc lights a hundred feet above, giving her a kind of halo to her face. He could see here studying him carefully for his reaction.
‘Hi, yes I do most of the school visits to the plant. Sorry, but you have the advantage over me, as I just have you down as ‘Bay City Independent teacher’ on my roster. I don’t know your name?’
‘I’m Tina and I teach, or should I probably say wrangle, Class five. I’ll be honest, I think I’ve seen you before but it’s one of those things that’s been driving me crazy all afternoon. I can’t work out where from. Put me out of my misery. Please. Do you live round here?’ Tina watched, and waited. He didn’t pause. Tina felt an excited shiver, her tactic had worked.
‘I’m Bay City born and bred, my parents and grandpappy lived here, and probably as far as they all go back I reckon. But now you’ve got me thinking. J D’s mini mall. Were you there at Christmas?’
Shit. Shit. Shit. Thought Tina. Rumbled! Wait on, keep calm, play it cool.
‘Sure, that’s my local shop. Hang on. Red jumper, jeans. Weren’t you the speed shopped that zapped through biscuits into cereals and nearly collided with that old lady.’ Matt’s face reddened quickly but then he smiled.
‘Guilty as charged. I never seen to plan very well ahead for Christmas and I’m always rushing about last minute. Shifts here don’t help as every once in a while we have to do evenings. It’s not just tours, I’m in charge of our emergency planning project. I’m sure it’s no surprise when I say that Homeland Security want to make sure the lights keep on even if the worst came to the worst.’
‘So you must be a local too then,’ said Matt. ‘Not many people go to J D’s if they can go to the bigger out of town centres.’
‘Sure, I’m in Jefferson Avenue, so where are you then?’ Tina made it sound casual, innocent.
‘Grant Street, just around the corner. You must know Brady’s bar then?’
Wow, this sounded pretty forward of him. It had taken one minute. Her tactic had worked like a charm and she knew round one was hers. The next sentence was her prize as his eyes twinkled and he lowered his voice to make sure he couldn’t be overheard by the departing kids.
‘Look, I know this is a bit bold but would you like a drink sometime?
Bold was good but Tina looked virginal. Not easy. Act nonchalant.
‘Well… I’m a bit busy tomorrow and the bar is pretty heated on a Friday but it’s quieter at the weekend. You fancy a quiet drink in Brady’s Saturday, say about seven?’
His eyes said everything, ‘Sure, sounds like a great idea if that works for you?’
As Tina exited the main reception of the plant with her rag-tag of fractious teenagers, even the cool Texas winter sun seemed to generate a bit of extra warmth inside her. Matt Mills was on the hook and she was reeling him in already.