Nuclear Family

By

Shrouded by a thatch of thin-stalked hardwoods and a parking lot, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Facility is best viewed from the river, where a giant concrete cube squats between two rows of cooling towers and a smokestack, amidst outbuildings, turbines, and a knot of power lines. The plant sits in a town called Vernon on the banks of the Connecticut, just north of the place in the river where Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire touch each other underwater. Other than the steam that often billowed from the cooling towers, it makes no real impression from the lone state road winding its way from Vernon, population 2,206, into Brattleboro, population 12,049. But it has been there, visible by kayak, for over forty years. And this year it has closed.

There was nothing structurally wrong with it. It still spun uranium into electricity, but the corporate owners decided that the plant, Vermont’s lone nuclear reactor, had aged beyond the point of profit and should be decommissioned. Mothballed. I heard the news and felt as though my childhood had been decommissioned too. There is no reason for this feeling beside the fact that we spent ten years in the shadow of that plant. A short three-mile drive my father made each day to work. And even though we couldn’t see it through the trees, it was our Plymouth Rock, our hitching post, the tether holding us in place.

We’d moved to Vernon when I was twelve, after five years ping-ponging across the country, from California to Florida to California, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Vermont. My father and my adoptive mother wrested me from an unfit birth mother and we moved, anonymously and often, through mid-size cities, putting miles by the thousands between me and the bad half of my biology. We were like a little atom: one seven-year-old and two adults, held together by the steel shell of an early-nineties minivan. Father, mother, child. Together, we three bundled. We made mass.

Our center was often challenged, but it held. The job my father gave up in radiation protection had been steady; now he worked on short-term contracts. When he couldn’t bring us with him to find work, he had to leave us temporarily behind. We joined when finances and school calendars allowed, but stretching three felt thin across so many weeks, so much geography. In 1996, he took a full-time job at Vermont Yankee and he brought us with him. Settling in Vernon meant my family no longer had to hold our arms so wide to touch each other. It was the first time we were in one place for more than six months at a time.

Vernon is a heel spur on the green state of Vermont, a tiny bone shard at the center of the tri-state netherterritory. Its twenty square miles contain an elementary school; a combination town hall, library, and police department; a public recreation center; a lumber mill; a solitary (controversial) gas pump; and, where the road forks, just at the river’s edge, the power plant. Simple houses are arranged around the few roads cobwebbing through the cornfields and the Town Forest, which dominates the western two-thirds of the town. CornKids play Little League, pee in the pool. One gets to know one’s mailman. There are no sidewalks, but drivers slow and wave to anybody walking on the shoulder, with dog or without.

To me, it was perfect: fields of chest-high corn and railroad tracks and rippling foothills. The sun sank past the tree line and whole swaths of green would blacken with the night. There were no streetlamps, only stars and every now and then a pair of headlights. It smelled like manure, like pine needles, like loam. Dogs barked, crickets whirred, and cherubic children clutching brightly colored pails toddled on the lawns.

Full of hope for our shared future, we bought a pre-fab house. It was pastel Easter blue, but it was ours, and came with a huge, unstained back deck and a quarter-acre wood. There wasn’t much to do out there but read and ride one’s bike and drive the eighteen miles round-trip to Price Chopper for groceries. The first few years, we homesteaded without cable, using an antique satellite dish the size of a two-door sedan that took five minutes to grind itself to each coordinate; whole channels were lost in summer when the copse of trees and weedy evergreens filled in. We got a shelter dog and loved her. We walked her through the cornfield at the bottom of our hill and down dirt logging roads that led to beaver ponds, fish hatcheries. She was part border collie and gently herded us, the chipmunks, and the neighbors’ children. We wore boots and parkas and bought Christmas trees from farms on snowy, late-December afternoons.

I never really asked my father what he did. I just knew that he came home (to split-level apartments and rental homes across America) with backseats full of swag: lanyards, safety goggles, ball caps, clicky pens, and strangely branded totes and stationery. Once, a memorable skipper-yellow plastic rain suit, size XL, complete with hat and booties. In childhood, I concocted great imaginings with these, playing House and School and Office and “Nuclear Physician,” which entailed squeezing shampoos into soap shavings and making the bathroom sink balloon with foam. Later, when my adolescent minimalism overtook me, I felt a secret wasteful shame in wanting to throw these items wholesale into the trash, to rid myself of unaesthetic clutter. To be elegant among prettier things, not clunky office items pilfered by my father (who taught me to nick toiletries and coffee packets from maid carts at a very tender age).

He was just my dad. And power plants were just a place he went to work. Sometimes I came to him with questions, when liberal idealism overtook me and I began to heed the protesters who sometimes stood outside the gates of VY chanting “Hell no, we won’t glow.” He told me what had happened in Chernobyl (reactor housed in a tin shed) and at Three Mile Island (perfect storm of human and computer error). He told me about fuel rods and fission, containment measures and the NRC. He took me to the VY Welcome Center and I ran the Geiger counter over unhooked telephone receivers and Fiestaware. He told me about ALARA, how he worked to keep ionizing radiation exposures As Low As Reasonably Achievable, how that was his job. I thought that all was fine.

Dad worked at Vermont Yankee for thirteen years—sometimes at the Vernon plant and sometimes at the corporate headquarters in the industrial sprawl of Brattleboro, between the Windham Solid Waste Management Distribution center, Pete’s Tire Barns, and a J.J. Nissen factory outlet where he sometimes bought discount loaves of bread and off-brand fig bar cookies. My mother (the good one) worked at VY too, but left when the politics and corporatese began to drive her mad. There was something weird about that patch of southernmost Vermont, some undercurrent between the dairy farmers, the subsistence hunters on their off-road vehicles, and the kale-braiding, pseudo-political hemp enthusiasts. Maybe that weirdness was a white man in pleated chinos and a polo shirt. (Vernon, much like its parent state, is 98.6% Caucasian, which is weird enough.) This man had a wife, two children, 2.5 cars. A gazebo or a swing set in the backyard, an America-for-[Insert Republican] placard in the front. He was conservative. And he was legion. With very few exceptions, this man worked for Vermont Yankee. My mother hated him and all his ilk; she found the culture stifling. She’d come home ranting as my dad would dull his eyes and shrink. He liked it there. He liked those men. And anyway their society was ours.

It was a society of skilled laborers and middle managers, all earning well. Like any other corporate enclave, it was a society of scandal, wife-swappers and troubled teenagers, dark homes full of country kitsch paired ill with massive leather sofas. My parents didn’t drink then. After a while, they eschewed pub nights and barbeques, where wives clotted in the kitchens talking babies, making dips, and husbands stood out on the patio, grilling things, with hands thrust in their pockets and rocking blandly in their tennis shoes. At home, my mother sat in one chair in pajamas; my dad lay on the couch. Once we had cable, he dozed in the direction of the television and we, grateful, listened to him snore.

Vermont Yankee paid our bills and made it possible for us to be together. I got my driver’s license and sped down country roads to high school—a school I didn’t have to leave mid-year—where I made friends and lay out on the grass to watch the fiery leaves fall down. I inhaled the wood-smoke scent of autumn, and the blank, white cold of winter. I listened to Joni Mitchell tapes and sixties FM radio in my dad’s hand-me-down sedan. (His midlife crisis purchases, benignly, were: one yacht-sized 1992 Cadillac, an upright out-of-tune piano, and a bust-of-Elvis lamp, all bought at auction.) I left my family every morning and came home to them each night, thinking they would stay where I had left them, as I had left them. The house would smell of rice pilaf and bags of microwaved peas-and-pearl-onions, the way a home should smell. I set the table, then let the dog lick scraps of chicken from my fingers when she stretched beneath the table at my stockinged feet.

Yet Vernon always seemed to fall short of our expectations. The corn grown at the bottom of our hill was starchy and inedible, just for cows. It never snowed on Christmas Eve. And then my father nearly died—was dead—for ten minutes, technically. He’d suffered a fluke attack of tachycardia and collapsed at the gym. We were singing Christmas Carols at the time, lighting candles and decking our kitchen with plastic snowflakes and pine garlands. We’d wanted to surprise him with a wonderland when he got home from work. It was the first our family knew of violence. When he recovered, things were different—as if something in him, or in us, had changed.

The cracks began to show. The roads were dark, the quiet occasionally oppressive, and the doctors weren’t very good. My mother got so sick she lost three teeth and her gallbladder. My father’s mother died. My mother’s father died. Dad had work; I went to college. Mum had no one left to talk to, so she took up arts and crafts; she painted clocks and decorative sleds. We became strangers to each other in that place she swore was too small and too cold. We grew there; she could not.

One summer, during college, I took a job making spreadsheets and drafting correspondence for the maintenance department at the plant. I remember feeling so important, placing my lunch onto the security conveyor belt and flashing my badge before the metal detector. I worked a shift they called “four tens,” four days a week from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Most of the crop of town kids hired for seasonal admin support worked for more managerial divisions, while I reported to a guy named Larry who wore belted jeans and steel-toed work boots, and was very, very smart—except as pertained to word processing. Because his job was vital to Vermont Yankee’s day-to-day operation, and I was not allowed near any intricate machinery, I spent a goodly amount of hours waiting for him in a temporary outbuilding they called the G.U.B., so named for being green and ugly. I shared my workspace with a handful of septuagenarian contractors. One of these, named Vern, was from the bayou and made a weekly batch of étouffée in a crockpot on his desk. While Vern ate “mud bugs,” shells and all, I read George Eliot in my cubicle and listened to my father’s oldies mix. He was working up at Corporate then, but sometimes he had business at the plant and we would meet for lunch at the picnic table cluster just before the razor wire double fence. My dad and I were close; we always have been. But working where he worked made me picture him within those walls before we joined him there: the spare efficiency, the loneliness, and yes, the self-reliance. And it made me wonder why, now that our family had finally settled somewhere, it was starting to destabilize.

The atom is the smallest basic unit of our universe, a tiny engine humming inside matter. The nucleus is smaller still: protons and neutrons clumped together at the center of a storm of negatively charged electrons. That huddle, positively charged, is the center of all centers, the kernel around which moleculesNuclear are made and of which worlds are built.

It is also the smallest basic unit of a family. The nub that, with any luck, connects to other nubs to form a proper network, an extended structure strong enough to protect its parts. This is how I understood the nucleus: the minimum of what we need, and that which forms the “originating core” or heart of us, the three of us. Some bonds are made by birth, others by choice or force of habit. Father, mother, child. We became a family on the road, but were meant to be a stable element in Vernon, bound together by the insulation and the egg-blue vinyl siding of our house. We lived not four miles from VY’s concrete containment building. We lit our house up with its power. Then we split apart.

Our family fission took its time; a gradual cyclone of deaths, resentments, and misunderstandings weakened us and pulled us thin again. A marriage, poisoned, fell. Slowly, while spinning, they stopped generating love, and I stood in the center wondering how I had failed to see it: the beginning and the middle of their end. I thought I could be the stuff that held our atom fast, but I was not enough. I turned my back on their disaster in my post-pubescent rage. I don’t know now whom I should not forgive. “I’m leaving,” my father said, and the rogue neutron was fired. The energy of us was shot across Green Mountains. The heat was bitterness and hopelessness and rage. A few months later, our dog, Gabby, died of sudden and inoperable bladder cancer in my mother’s arms, right there on the lawn.

Like the corn crop waving at the bottom of the hill, if you opened up our family husk, the meat inside was pale, tough, and dry. The sweetness had been lost to soil.

When Uranium-235 splits, it releases a fit of other, smaller nuclei, plus heat and gamma rays. Water boils and turns the turbine; power surges to the grid. What’s left is toxic waste. The world does not have room for all this waste, the leftovers of our atomic efforts. There are metric tons and tons of it. As Low As Reasonably Achievable is never low enough. Then there are the accidents, the Fukushimas with their melting cores, vast under-basement lakes of deadly water, and spawns of blighted tuna. It seems that we are always in the aftermath of some disaster, relying on auxiliary methods, held together by so many rusted bolts. Everything is threatened; everything always ends. Marriages and fuel cycles. Childhoods and disasters. Eventually, so will the world. But first, a forty-one-year-old reactor in a strip of sloping pastureland. A place I thought would always mock me with its permanence.

When a nuclear reactor is decommissioned, the operators have three options: immediately decontaminate and demolish, DECON; seal it up in swaddling clothes and wait a while before dismantling, SAFSTOR; and ENTOMB, which means inhuming the whole thing in metric tons of concrete for up to sixty years. The company that owns VY elected SAFSTOR. Sometime this year, when all 630 employees will have been compensated, and hundreds of contractors sent home, the site of Vermont Yankee will be shut down and secured, and left to sit there like a cubic castle in a ghost town. The corporate offices will be sold to still another corporation who will also drive past shelves of J.J. Nissen rolls.

Mathematics says that no two things can ever touch; the space between them just keeps fractioning. My family had once been held together by electromagnetic force, by charges orbiting around us, by substances unknowable—massless, vanishing. Was that force love, or was it motion? Perhaps it was unnatural for us to try to hold together in one place. When we left our wooded home in Vernon, we left separately. What was almost one was again three.

After the divorce, Dad went back to contract at the southern plants. The house was neither entombed nor dismantled, though I wish it had been. My mother felt that we had all been poisoned by it, but she stayed until it sold. The structure we left better than we’d found it: new beige siding, a crabapple tree, the spiky blanket of a lawn. Some other family lives there now, and has to hurl the ten-pound bags of salt into the water softener. Perhaps they’ll leave when Vermont Yankee closes down.Explosion In my heart, the whole town ought to be a ghost town, a swamp of empty cubes and roads to nowhere. Dead corn languishing on bending stalks.

Vernon may cease to matter on the map but will remain a pleasant place to live. Children will continue swimming and old men will continue fishing in the warm-water pond beneath the dam, just down from where an aging cooling tower once collapsed—even after the plant closes, even if half the population leaves. The town was once an outlier, an accident, a patchwork of stubborn settlers on Squakheag land—The Great Bend in the River. It was annexed to New Hampshire, claimed by Massachusetts, bandied back and forth until 1802. Before the building of the nuclear reactor, it was more or less a patch of fields that people drove through en route to more scenic points north, and after that, merely a host. The VY workers never melded with the hunters or the hippies, the dairy farmers or the Seventh Day Adventists. Neither did we. A small town without a unity of purpose is just a minor one.

When I remember Vernon I think of gravity, of failed planets and other lonely little spheres adrift in a vacuum sea. I think of how my family never made it out. I think about the closure, and I wonder whether some part of the atoms that once were ours will be sealed within the plant alongside all those spent fuel rods in pools, left silently and unattended, waiting for the cleanup team, waiting for the danger to decay. Someday, in ten to sixty years, perhaps they will be safe enough to touch. By then, though, there should be some kind of standard for emotional contamination. ALARA for the fallout of the heart.

***

Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


Meghan Bean Flaherty's work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Cactus Heart, The Intentional Quarterly, and online at Asymptote, Treehouse, The New Inquiry, and Catch & Release. She has an MFA from Columbia in Nonfiction and Literary Translation, and is currently finishing her first book, a personal history of Argentine tango. Find her on Twitter @msmeghanbean. More from this author →