Published in the March 2009
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.30, No.1.
by Jeremy Whitlock
The darkness draws them out. The darkness and the cold.
They crump along in fresh snow or drift in the moonlight, while good people sleep, work, and feed their children, unaware of the hunger about to be satiated.
They are big, they are small. Old and young. Silent. Sensing. Salivating.
They have come before, but always without warning, and always from a different direction, at an unexpected place, to an unexpected vulnerability. The only certainty is that they will come again, when darkness falls and the land chills.
They hunger for knowledge, eaten alive. They drink the warm blood of intelligence and excrete fear, dread, horror. They ravish goodness, render it sinew and bone, and return for more.
The coldest and darkest of months, December, has seen them many times. Deep in the land of ice and snow, far from the warmth of the nearest city, they are known well this time of year. Stockades of moral certitude crumble before them in the snow. Heads roll and are covered in frost by morning. Those assuming command by day will rebuild and retrain, and are never certain to see the next day.
December was not always like this. It was in December over a century ago that useful, happy radioactivity was first extracted from rock by the Curies. Radium glowed through many Decembers, and it was in December four decades later that the by-product uranium revealed its fissioning glory for all to see. Four Decembers after that Fermi's reactor tamed the beast for the first time. Less than a decade passed when the first nuclear electricity lit a dark December in Idaho. Two more Decembers, and Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" shone the way forward for a whole planet.
Then a foreboding December in 1952 saw the world's first major reactor accident at Chalk River. Fortunately it was a time when knowledge trumped fear, and what emerged was lightness and learning: a disaster need not ensue from such troubles, people need not be hurt, reactors need not be un-fixable, and an indispensable industry need not be hamstrung.
Half a century later, lightness is a victim and learning an orphan.
A cold December in 2007 saw a non-event at Chalk River descended upon mercilessly. They had come before, but never in such numbers, and never as hungry. Rationality shredded easily before them. Soiled rags hanging from their bodies bespoke respectability in another time, another place, before the downfall of sense and sensitivity: journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, activists. All craved the blood meal of slaughtered science, the better to nurture their young back at the nest. Each fought the other over the carcass, hoping to climb the highest upon it, a symbol of superiority among thieves.
The science reeled, but regrouped.
It is no better prepared, however, for this onslaught a year later, when once more the darkness of December befalls the chilly upper Ottawa Valley. Without warning the snarling horde leaps again from the shadows, taking the heads off the outermost sentries of logic before they know they are there.
The good people awake to the last screams of dying sanity, and the first primal scream of victorious sensationalism. They back to their reason, encircle it, defend the last of their dignity against the encroaching misinterpretation.
Some question aloud how they could deserve this, after protecting the environment to the best of their abilities. The more naive wonder if they were being mistaken for some other entity that wasn't staying three orders of magnitude below its emission limits. The elders know this is no mistake, and hold the line.
And then, suddenly, it seems that a noise or scent in the distance has caught the attention of the menacing siege. Clambering over each other, they race away to ravage some other enticing and unfortunate target.
A truck of human sewage sludge from Ottawa has unwittingly registered radiation as it tried to cross the U.S. border.
The word ignites bloodlust like no other. The brood cackles and howls as it disappears from view. Those spared at Chalk River breathe a sigh of relief, gather their strength, and prepare to rebuild.
Until the next chill wind.