When the No.4 reactor at Chernobyl blew up, in 1987, there was a lot of distress and concern in our community. So I organised for a bus to take a group of about 20 to visit the nuclear reactor at Dounreay.
I must have been in the mood that it would be a useful way for us to counter our ignorance and apprehension of nuclear power by looking around a working operation. I’d phoned ahead and arranged for us to join a tour of the site.
At the Visitor’s Centre, before the start of the tour, we were given an explanation of the nuclear processes that go on at the core of the reactor. The talk was accompanied by pictures of colliding billiard balls, which to my mind only make sense if you are already schooled in particle physics. We put on hard hats and white coats and radiation dosimeters. Went through security gates and checks, then visited the control room, with its monitors and quiet order. Next, we walked across the very top of the very metallic reactor, which felt like a brave thing to do and was somehow reassuring. That was about it. Questions and answers. A cup of tea and a plain biscuit. Sign the book. Then back in the bus and the drive home along the coast road, chattering and snoozing.
Two years on, needing paid work, and curious more than ever about the “metaphysics of nuclear”, I sought work at Dounreay and found employment with contractors who were investigating the geology and hydrology of the site. Our work was designed to determine if this location would be suitable for an underground repository, to store the radioactive wastes being produced by this and the other nuclear reactors in Britain.
My job was to work alongside the contractor’s hefty diesel-engined drill and catch the core coming to the surface. Then I’d log and sample and photograph and box It all up before the drill brought another three or four metre section to the surface. This work went on day and night. Rotating shifts. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a comrade.
A great feature about the site was how, once inside the really quite tight security checks, then, if the work allowed it, if the drill was moving or struggling with the conditions of the rock, then I was free to roam about the site, eat in the canteen and talk with the reactor staff, visit the library and read good solid accounts of the nuclear processes.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for. I told my colleagues, in fact, everyone I met, that I was curious about the metaphysics of nuclear energy. There was nothing to lose. It meant I was logged in as a bit of nut case. I was good at my work, filled in and signed off the quality control sheets, ran a sweepstake to guess an important geological contact, swept the muddy site office, things like that. And then one day, when the drill rig was being moved, I joined the daily site tour, just to see what else there might be to see.
The tour this day included a visit to the laboratory located beneath the reactor, where used fuel rods were taken to be dissected and studied for their metallurgical condition. The reactor staff were always concerned that the fuel rods might lose their shape or strength in the high temperatures at the core of the reactor. A buckled fuel rod could cause problems by impeding the steady flow of liquid sodium that was necessary to remove heat from the burning uranium. The laboratory was carefully made with thick concrete walls and lead glass windows set above glove boxes, where the technicians could handle and cut up the rods inside of a sealed compartment.
I might in other circumstances have missed registering the muted yet distressing atmosphere within the laboratory, except we went there with two Scottish women from the Visitor’s Centre, and they acted like a barometer to the strange feelings in the laboratory. We had walked across the top of the reactor when they told us we would now visit the laboratory, known informally as the Caves. To get there, we had to pass through an air-lock and as we did so I could not help but notice the change of mood that came across these two women. I had been admiring them up to this moment for their bright friendly chattiness. But as we entered the airlock, they became anxious and clucked angrily at us. I stepped over a painted line on the floor and they rounded on me. For heaven’s sake, what is going on with you two, I thought. This made me look around with more interest than usual and I registered the strange atmosphere within the laboratory that we now entered. It was unusually hot for one thing. But there was a different atmosphere in the place. It was quite discomforting. It was hot, as I said, and we were all wearing warm clothes. Then one of our party fainted. This caused a big commotion and knowing we would be waiting around for a while, I retreated into a corner of the lab. I just needed some space and time to feel into what I was feeling. Already, I felt an unusual sense of sadness. I thought it was mine at first. Why am I feeling so blue when I had arrived in at the lab feeling bright and cheerful. So it isn’t my stuff that I am feeling. It was here already, here and everywhere in the long room of this laboratory.
A young man was addressing the tour group, explaining the purpose of the lab. One of the guides came looking for me and ticked me off when she found me lurking at the back behind a console. You again. Yes, it’s me again. Why are you so upset. But she wouldn’t answer. Only later, when the tour was over, I apologised to her for being unruly and she was mollified. I asked if it was always like that in the laboratory and she shook her head and wouldn’t speak. There were tears in her eyes so I did not pursue the subject, but guessed at her conflict. Yet it was enough that I then got to know the young man who managed the lab. He was a grad student running a research project and he let me come back on other occasions, when I would then sit quietly in a corner of the room that looked through the lead glass windows into the adjacent chamber where the spent fuel rods were kept in racks. It always felt much the same. Sadness. Slow moving waves of a hot sadness. Slow moving waves of a hot dark black sadness. And within this, moments of lightning or was it fear, or might it have been despair.
I related my experiences to different managers of the reactor, whom I would meet in the site canteen. The one manager told me outright that they were just too busy managing the physics of the reactor to concern themselves with the metaphysics. But he graciously opened a door for me by suggesting I speak with the Chief Physicist. So I went, as arranged, one evening to his home in the town of Thurso. His wife let me in and brought me to the man’s study. He was small statured and energetic with it, and he was short-tempered with me the moment I entered the room. What was this nonsense he had heard about me. Who had allowed me into the laboratory, he demanded to know. Before I could answer, he harangued me and anti-nuclear people everywhere for standing in the way of progress. He denied my experiences for me, said they were inventions and promised he’d have me fired if I ever went near the lab again. I wagged my fingers and blurted out to him: Listen, the atomic particles, it’s highly possible that they are as social and sentient as ourselves. He stopped in his tracks and looked at me for a moment. “That is not scientific” he said. I tried once more. Listen Mr Chief Scientist, I am a friend of nuclear, I am not afeart of it. We have to learn to look in there with women’s awareness to see the whole story. Talk of divine coincidence, his wife came into the study, bringing us a tray of tea and biscuits. Then some small incident triggered my man and he turned and lambasted her so that she crept out. That was enough. I excused myself and went on my way. The wife let me out the door, the loyal woman, apologising on his behalf. She murmured that she wished he was not so obsessed by his reactor.
I spoke to him on the way home. Listen Mister Bigwig. I am not anti-nuclear. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone as curious about the nuclear subject as I am. Our present knowledge of the subject is so superficial. It’s nothing but the physics. That comment would surely get him started.
Walking through the winter dark streets of Thurso, I found myself in a strangely good mood. Feeling surprised at how easily I had gotten inside the nuclear castle and gained experiences that were invaluable and yet not really there for the asking. And now I had been in the home of the top dog and seen how stuck and trapped he was with his purely scientific view of the particle world, and probably everything else. Misogyny: ouch, what a limiting notion. That really blocks us from knowing and valuing a feminine perception of things. I’ve been there. It’s a default setting that needs constant reviewing. I told him as I walked home … my sense is how we’ve these two different ways of viewing a subject. This means, we have two streams of information about the subject: run them together and an hologram of that subject then forms itself in our mind’s eye. This way, we get to glimpse the holographic nature of our Universe. And the holographic nature of the atomic particles. There’s no other way to get there.
As for the feeling of radiation: this guy on his high horse couldn’t even hear the idea of it. Whereas his wife, I imagined, could easily settle down and listen and hear the cries of distress coming up to us from the particle world down inside the blanket of matter. And probably wonder, what she could do to help.
The grad student in charge of the lab: his thick head of hair turned entirely white during the time I was there. I quizzed him about it and he said it was a medical condition. Nothing at all to do with the laboratory. Sweet Jesus. Is there no end to the denial we attach to every aspect of our nuclear work.
In the end, the idea of a radioactive waste repository at Dounreay was ruled out. While the Caithness sequence of rock strata was compact and stable, there was just too much subterranean water washing through the whole series to make it suitable.