Dear Vice, I used to work at a nuclear reactor for three years in college.
Photo by Nicholas Gazin
Dear Vice, I used to work at a nuclear reactor for three years in college. It wasn’t a power reactor, it was only strong enough to power about 24 washer-dryers—which is sweet if you have a lot of laundry, but otherwise pretty much useless for supplying power. It was mainly used for research, like irradiating compounds for the chemistry department to find out what elements are in them. The reactor was almost entirely student run and more female employees than any other reactor in the world. Interesting but unrelated fact: we used to clean the reactor sample tube with tampons. I always wondered what the Costco checkout guy thought when I pulled up a cart with 2,000 tampons.
My job title was Reactor Operator. I had to go through a yearlong training, extensive background check, and pass written and oral exams to be allowed to work there. Security was intense. When going into the building, I had to scan my index finger and enter my code. “Welcome Quincy Cardinale,” the computer said. That was probably the best thing about working there. Everything else kind of sucked. We had to go through constant re-evaluations of our skills, emergency drills, and training the upcoming crop of Urkels. As a math major, you’d be inclined to assume I was pretty nerdy, but ironically I was never quite nerdy enough to fit in around the reactor. I didn't get the bad physics jokes and I always seemed to fuck something up.
My last year working there, we ran an emergency drill, where the entire 40 person staff had to participate. This time I was to be the operator on duty—I was in charge and had to sit behind the controls of the reactor. This scared the shit out of me for two reasons: 1. The entire time I worked there, I always felt like a perpetrator, lurking around the reactor and pretending I knew what I was doing. 2. My boss pretty much hated me because of reason #1. (I also hated my boss, but that had more to do with him riding a Segway. ) As the drill began, I was seated behind the reactor console. Two “terrorists,” appropriately dressed in Krusty the Clown masks, came in with Nerf guns and ordered me to take them to the Plutonium.
What you're supposed to do in this situation is sneakily reach to the secret hidden box and pretend to push the emergency button that notifies campus security and the police. This, after all, being a drill. I reached in and glazed the button ever so slightly. Too bad it was a way more pushy button than I thought—I was thinking blender button, but it was more of an ipod-touch button. Woops. I lied to myself and pretended nothing happened, and prayed to god that I didn’t just pull a Homer Simpson. I continued to play along, following standard emergency procedure. I told the clown terrorists we didn’t have access to the Plutonium but that I could show them where it was: at the foot of a deep pool of water, surrounded by heavy-metal cladding, impossible to get to unless you felt like putting on scuba gear and irradiating yourself.
They told me to get to the ground and put my hands on my head, so I did. Then, we heard sirens. “Hmm, that’s funny, sounds like the cops are here,” my boss said. Suddenly, the heavy double-bolt-locked security door bust open and a storm of armed police offers rushed in yelling for everyone to put their hands above their heads. My boss was pissed, but didn’t fire me for some reason. He probably felt bad for me when he saw the humiliation in my face as the entire staff of reactor-dorks laughed at me.
Though I wasn’t dorky enough to fit in at the reactor, I certainly wasn’t the dumbest one there. One time somebody thought it was a good idea to stick blue cheese in the reactor—funny-ish, except when it came out way hotter than anyone expected because of the sodium content in the cheese (“hot” means radioactive) and they had to evacuate. Another stupid-ish coworker used to go in late at night and smoke weed in the reactor room. That worked well for a while, until some genius pulled a seriously retarded move and they had to put up security cameras. Though I’m not at liberty to disclose details, I’ll just say one of the operators thought it would be funny to unplug a certain cord. Hilarious, right? Well, yes, but only until the FBI is on your ass for committing the federal offense of tampering with nuclear facilities and endangering the public.
All in all, it was probably worth working there. My father can keep my framed nuclear reactor operator license and pretend I grew into the engineer he wanted me to be. As for me, I can fool people into thinking I’m some sort of genius by sneaking “Reactor Operator” on my resume. Lucky for me, people have yet to guess that I was actually more of a Homer Simpson than a Marie Curie.
- Vice Blog