Leonard leaned his head against the glass and briefly closed his eyes. Exhaustion caused by tension filled his frame, and a single drop of sweat crossed his forehead and traveled down his cheek to his chin. He didn’t notice when it splatted on the steel window frame, appearing nearly black in the greenish light. His eyes opened to stare again at the canister in the eerily silent room.
He shook back the chill that had settled on his spine and reminded himself that the light in the room wasn’t green at all. It only looked green through the glass. Consciously lifting his face away from the pane, he stretched his tense muscles. It was a reflection of his tiredness that he had allowed himself to lean against anything in this building; thirty years had ingrained in him the minor tricks of the trade: never touch anything if you don’t have to, don’t touch your face, avoid direct contact with others. He became aware of the dark splotch on the window sill, but had no inclination to wipe it clean.
Slowly, Leonard studied the room through the glass. It wasn’t easy from this position, only about a third of the room was visible; the rest out of his line of sight or distorted by the window itself. Three feet by eight feet, the window offered little distortion looking straight ahead. At an angle, though, it acted like a crystal or prism, and light was not reflected truly. More like seeing through a fish tank, maybe, since the window was really just that. Two panes of glass, three quarter-inches thick each, with the six-inch cavity between filled with water. Water, with its high hydrogen content, was an excellent radiation barrier. The water window allowed them to look inside the room to confirm with human senses what some of the most sophisticated monitoring instruments in the world could already measure.
But, he thought sadly, apparently they couldn’t measure everything. His eyes were brought back to the can, one of hundreds of identical canisters in the room, spaced precisely across the checkerboard on the floor, each can with a unique identifying location. D24 contained a relatively small amount of plutonium, and was indistinguishable from its surrounding brethren. Until tonight, he thought, or was it this morning?
D24 was placed in this room seven years previously, when a “temporary” shutdown caused by meddling bureaucrats and overzealous inspectors had stopped plant operations. Everyone expected to resume operations and continue processing the plutonium in this room within weeks. The weeks grew, and the world outside changed. We won the Cold War, and overnight we had more nuclear weapons than we knew what to do with. The weapons and the plants that made them were suddenly unneeded. The American people and their politicians were ready to move on and face new challenges and make new headlines. But fifty years of momentum had to be reversed, and those short-sighted decisions made over fifty years of expediency had to be faced. You can’t just throw away leftover plutonium; it has to be managed, watched, guarded and, somehow, kept safe.
Plutonium is one of those man-made elements, emitting alpha radiation that is mostly dangerous only if inhaled. Its half-life, a measure of how long it exists, is estimated in tens of thousands of years. In human time, forever. In some forms, plutonium also has a nasty habit of spontaneously combusting when exposed to oxygen; potentially causing a fire that would serve to spread plutonium particles through the air. Under low-levels of oxygen, the metal could oxidize, forming a gray powdery ash, easily distributed through the air. Criticality, viewed by the public as the mushroom-shaped cloud of the nuclear bomb era, is extremely unlikely from plutonium in storage, but processing could cause densities and configurations of the atoms that could create a criticality. While such an accident would be unlikely to breach all the containment surrounding the work areas, nearby workers would likely join the limited ranks of the “Blue Flash Club”, workers killed in nuclear criticality accidents.
So D24 stayed in the nitrogen-filled room, while outside, bureaucrats, politicians and the public argued over funding for the continued operation necessary to stabilize the materials and clean up the messes left behind. Failing bureaucracy, management gridlock and worker morale combined to undermine attention to tough problems. Leonard and others on the inside watched the growing deterioration of what was once the most sophisticated manufacturing operation in the world. Maintenance was delayed, repairs jury-rigged or ignored, and needed upgrades and replacements halted.
Leonard pondered his reflection in the window. He liked the night shift. The slow pace, the quiet and the isolation suited him. He left the day and evening shifts for the others with families and outside interests. Here, inside one of the most heavily guarded complexes in America, wrapped in multiple layers of security and containment, he was alone with his past. He didn’t face the humorless and disrespectful inspectors, the union and management bureaucrats positioning for favor, or the disillusioned looks of his companion cold-war warriors, defeated in victory.
Tonight though, Leonard’s peace had been disturbed. In the first hour of his shift, he walked the building, just checking things out personally. Others on his shift thought he was stupid to do this. Why walk around, when he could play cards or read, and let the instruments watch the plutonium? So Leonard walked the halls alone, reading the instruments, checking the state of things.
He had just passed the first set of windows when he heard the faint rattling noise. He couldn’t locate the source of the sound, and knew that, of course, the plutonium storage room was too heavily insulated and shielded to be the source of the noise. He glanced in anyway, sensing some movement out of the corner of his eye. In the seeming vastness of the greenish glow and the rows of cans, nothing seemed amiss. He heard, or maybe felt, the clatter again and simultaneously his eyes were drawn to the movement. It was just perceptible, a slight vibration, like a crystal wine glass might make before shattering to a soprano’s perfect C. It vibrated again more visibly. Then nothing moved. All was silent and still in the room. His mind and heart raced, uncontrollably.
Leonard had raced to the control room at the end of the hall, where Jerry and Chet were playing cards. They were initially surprised; then skeptical. No abnormal readings, everything was stable. Maybe Leonard got a little weird out there in the hallways by himself.
Chet came back with him to the window. They peered into the silent room where nothing moved. Leonard went through all the things that could have caused the movement with Chet. The monitors showed no temperature change, even on the temperature-sensitive pad where the can sat. Likewise, no alpha or gamma emissions above normal. If the retriever was working, they could pull the can out and check it.
The retriever had been designed for just the problem Leonard faced. Nicknamed Rex after the designer’s hunting dog, the retriever moved containers in and out of the room. Operating on a gridwork of overhead rails, Rex could be sent to any location in the room, where talon-shaped hooks dropped down to pick up the designated canister. Rex could have lifted D24 and taken it to the specially designed conveyor attached to the glove boxes, allowing closer inspection without undue risk to the workers.
But Rex, like many of the plant’s highly sophisticated, custom pieces of equipment, was broken. It was seldom used and hard to keep maintained. Repairs were expensive and in this case, parts were nearly impossible to buy. In the past, Rex’s parts were made here in the plant, but those operations had been shut down years before. The only alternative was to send someone into the room; at best a risky and complex process not undertaken lightly. Someone would have to go inside, in a suit capable of spacewalk, using supplied air, and manually move the can to a glovebox where it could be retrieved and opened. No one knew what moving the can would do.
The implications of sending someone into the room sobered him, and Leonard read the concern in Chet’s face. Suddenly, he heard the faint rattle again, and both his and Chet’s eyes were drawn into the room. The movement was distinctly perceptible; a vibrating, shaking movement of the can. It lasted maybe a second or two, then stopped.
“Did you see it?” Leonard asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Chet replied.
“You heard it too. Right?”
Chet looked at Leonard, then away. “Maybe. I’m not sure.”
Leonard picked up the nearby wall phone and got Jerry in the control room. Still no response from the instrumentation. Jerry thought they were pulling his leg. Leonard and Chet agreed to watch and wait. If it moved again, they would report it.
That had been hours ago, and still no movement; no change in the readings. Leonard leaned his head against the glass and briefly closed his eyes. Exhaustion caused by tension filled his frame, and a single drop of sweat crossed his forehead and traveled down his cheek to his chin. He didn’t notice when it splatted on the steel window frame, appearing nearly black in the greenish light. His eyes opened to stare again at the canister …bathed in the greenish light, in the eerily silent and still room.