IN A XENON WORLD (Flash Fiction)
I have a spectacular view of the valley.
From the veranda of my cabin high above, I can see across to the mountain slopes on the other side, the fringe of green forest near the timberline, and peaks silhouetted against the deep, saturated blue of the sky.
I’m told the lovely deep blue of the sky is caused when red light in the sun’s spectrum gets absorbed as it strikes the Earth. The red light doesn’t bounce back up to muddy the blue color.
That’s one benefit.
I guess my parents liked living in the valley because it was a better place to raise children. Green lawns, playgrounds and soccer fields, all that. Later, I guess they just didn’t have the energy to move, even though air quality had deteriorated, and the neighbors became disruptive.
Mom gave up gardening roses, preferring to spend the day indoors with her rejuvenating oxygen tank while she lounged on the couch to watch programs about parents battling over custody of the kids. Every parent always promised they were the one who could provide a better life for the child.
My parents hadn’t paid much attention when the nearby power plant shut down.
The news lady said the light water reactor had been in operation for over sixty years and was no longer considered safe, that investigators discovered a series of cover-ups about incidents when radiation was accidentally vented into the atmosphere. None of the incidents was significant, though, so there was never any immediate danger. Each incident just caused bits of radiation to be sprinkled into the air, like a few grains of salt sprinkled into a pitcher of water.
However, investigators had also discovered radiation was eating a hole through the top of the containment dome, and now only seven inches of concrete kept a massive release of radiation out of the atmosphere.
So they shut the power plant down and decommissioned it. People knew about it, but the topic wasn’t interesting enough to discuss at neighborhood block parties. The power plant issue got the attention of valley inhabitants, though, when electric bills went up.
My folks and others in the valley wrote letters of complaint. How could they keep the house temperature at 74 during the winter if the monthly bill was going to be hundreds of dollars? How could they run the AC all summer, and keep their water feature’s recirculating pump going 24/7? Heck, they even had to think twice now before using the automatic ice tea maker.
Everyone cheered when the power company broke ground on a new power plant, a cutting-edge, innovative design that eliminated design flaws in the old-style light water reactor. Neighbors held excited discussions about all the great features of this new design, and Fred Frump became our local expert on the issue.
“It’s safe. There’s no possibility of a meltdown,” said Fred. “It’s got a plug of electrically-cooled salt. In the old plant, when the power went out, the pumps would stop pushing water through the system to keep it cool, so the fuel got a hotter and melted through the reactor floor. With this design, when power goes out, the plug melts. The fissioning molten salts drain into a pit to stop the reaction.”
“You don’t say!” My dad was stoked. “That is so cool! How long does it take for the fissioning salts to cool down? What do they do with the cool stuff? How do they get it out of the pit? How do they get the plant started again?”
“The report didn’t say,” said Fred. “But I heard this new reactor will be cheaper to run because it uses the cast-off fuel from old power plants. The new design squeezes energy out of fuel the old plants thought was all used up, and the waste from this plant won’t be nearly so radioactive.”
“How ever do they do that?”
“The old plants used fuel rods packed with uranium pellets. The process of fission produced gases, like xenon and krypton, which absorb neutrons. It’s like throwing baking soda on a fire. And the rod cladding trapped the gases in with the pellets. It poisoned the fuel.” Fred sipped his beer. “So this new design – it’s genius – they aren’t using fuel rods and uranium pellets. They melt uranium salts and let the gases boil off. The krypton and xenon just drift away so they don’t slow the reaction. That reactor keeps right on reacting and heating water to make steam to keep those turbines churning out energy.”
“Usin’ spent fuel from other nuke plants, ‘eh?” Old man Slurry was a little slow on the uptake. “So how’r they planning to get that high-level radioactive waste over to the new plant?”
“Oh, trucks, trains, I don’t know,” said Fred. “The report didn’t say.” He beamed. “Isn’t it great?”
Old Man Slurry’s attention drifted. “Hey, did you hear? They found rusty bolts in that train trestle over Harper Canyon River. Looks like they need to rebuild it. And they’re planning to upgrade the freeway overpass. I guess they don’t think it’s earthquake safe.”
“People are always worried about earthquakes,” said Fred. “You get a little rockin’ and rollin’. How bad can an earthquake be? Myself, I like a little rock ‘n roll now and then.”
The other neighbors laughed.
“What about that stuff they’re boiling off,” asked my dad. “Those radioactive gases. What do they do with that?”
“The report didn’t mention that either,” said Fred, “but I expect they’ll catch it and bottle it to sell to hospitals and light manufacturers. Xenon is expensive stuff, but it makes a great anesthetic and filler for gas-discharge lighting.”
“Whoa,” said Fran from down the street. “Maybe I should call my stock broker and invest in xenon light.”
“An anesthetic, hunh?” said Old Man Slurry. “So if they have any trouble that lets xenon and krypton gas out into the atmosphere, we’ll all just go to sleep and not cause the power company any trouble?”
The neighbors laughed.
The power company built the new Harper Valley Molten-Salt Reactor. My folks kept the AC going all summer, and used krypton- and xenon-filled lights to illuminate nighttime barbecues in the backyard.
No one paid much attention to occasional news reports that the power plant couldn’t always adequately contain the radioactive gasses. Heck, a little release here, an accidental venting there – the sky was big place, and those gases just mingled in invisibly, drifting away. No immediate danger.
Of course, we had earthquakes now and then. Some did cause structural damage in the neighborhood, and every year a few big windstorms whipped through the valley, cracking fragile things. Neighbors would line up at the home improvement stores to buy new windows and pipe fittings and xenon lights. Xenon lighting was so cheap by then, we could replace it without a second thought. The city issued publications, trying to educate people about proper disposal of damaged or burnt out lighting. However, that issue never was the topic of discussion at block parties.
After a few decades, some troublemaker investigating the molten-salt reactor power plant reported that structural deterioration due to constant exposure to radiation had been causing more leaks than the power folks and Nuclear Regulatory Commission wanted to admit.
A few years later, a meteorologist and an atmospheric scientist went on the news to say that, since most of the year our valley didn’t have a lot of wind to ventilate it, radioactive isotopes of xenon and krypton accumulated over it, building up to a significant concentration. That’s when we learned a basic fact of science: krypton and xenon are heavier than oxygen and nitrogen. That meant xenon and krypton gas drifted down, instead of up, accumulating in the layer of air blanketing the floor of our valley. Sort of like smog in LA or China, with the little added zing of radiation.
Some physician tweeted his prediction of a 50% increase in number of lung cancer deaths in our valley over the next fifty years. But what did he know?
We also learned there’s a reason xenon gas gives off a lovely bluish light when it’s packed in a glass tube and electrically agitated. The xenon absorbs longer (redder) wavelengths of the light spectrum.
Unfortunately, most land-based oxygen-producing plants on this planet use the long waves of red light to power their photosynthesis oxygen-factories. So in our valley, increasing levels of xenon in the layer of air where the plants grew filtered out the light waves plants need for energy, shutting down all those little oxygen factories. Plants got sickly, and died off. Oxygen was no longer being produced on the valley’s floor.
We all became very aware of another little scientific fact: because xenon and krypton are much heavier than either nitrogen or oxygen, concentrations of those gases displaced the air we needed to breathe, like carbon monoxide invisibly accumulating inside a house, preventing oxygen from entering the blood streams of sleeping residents.
The tweeting physician went on the evening news to tell us humans evolved to survive in a very narrow spectrum of atmospheric conditions. Normal air is 78% nitrogen, and almost 21% oxygen. A healthy adult human male will run into trouble if the percentage of oxygen drops by only one percent. When the concentration of oxygen drops from 21% to 16%, he’s in deep shit.
We never did get told the oxygen requirements of other species – I guess that wasn’t important enough to study – but we were still above 20% when I began to see drunken bees and beetles wobbling about on the sidewalk. As the oxygen percentage crept under 19%, they died in swarms. Normally, the ants would have carried away the insect carcasses, but I guess by then there weren’t any ants.
That spring, Mrs. Whatcher, the local birder, told us songbird nests were failing. Eggs hatched, she said, but the little peepers died before they fledged.
Rich people moved to fourth floor apartments and planted gardens on the roof. Poor people fought each other over lengths of two-by fours so they could fashion themselves crude stilts.
I decided we had to move the day my daughter’s canary died.
(First draft posted at www.writerscarnival.ca on May 26, 2015)