The World Is Safe Because I'm an Accountant
Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant
In 1986, I was working as an accountant for one of the eight companies that owned the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, NH. Trust me…it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.
Originally scheduled to consist of two nuclear reactors, only one was ever built thanks to political agendas and a less influential, but still highly vocal group of activists. If I sound a tad less than enthusiastic about the many people exercising their right to free speech, remember that my outlook was colored by my employment and life was a daily reinforcement of the “Us” versus “Them” argument. And they paid me well…
Accounting hadn’t been my first choice when deciding my career path. In fact, at the age of seventeen I had announced quite firmly to my family that I was going to be a petro-chemical engineer. Did I really know what a petro-chemical engineer did? Not a clue. It sounded very important and I was pretty sure it would allow me to work someplace exotic…like Saudi Arabia…where I would be considered a second class citizen because of my gender. But it did sound good when coupled with my minor…which was pre-law.
“And what are you majoring in Laurie,” an adult would ask politely.
“Ohh….I’m majoring in petro-chemical engineering with a minor in pre-law,” I would say in the same tone of voice that I would use to ask somebody to please pass the potato salad. You have to admit, it does sound rather impressive.
My father simply saw dollar signs and was as proud of me as he had been when I had previously announced that I was going to join the Air Force Academy and become a helicopter pilot. An officer! In the family! What a feather in his cap that would be since he had ended his military career after twenty five years respectably with the rank of Master Sargent. He even personally drove me to the base for the mandatory physical.
It was a rather interesting experience.
There I stood in line with about a dozen red-blooded American males in a military issue bathrobe and my purple fuzzy socks. The doctor in charge, who could have doubled as a drill-sargent came out with our charts and proceeded to pace back and forth the length of the line while eyeballing us. Occasionally he would consult a chart and make a grunting noise before firing off a question. “WHICH OF YOU….HAS THE IMPACTED WISDOM TEETH?!” One by one he glared at the men….not once looking at me. So, I can’t be faulted when my first thought was, “Wow….I’m not the only one with impacted wisdom teeth!”
But as the minutes ticked by and not one of my fellow hopefuls stepped forward to lay claim to this physical defect, I realized he must be looking at my chart. Tentatively I raised my hand and made a rather squeaky sound, “That would be…uh…me….sir.” I was a little worried when I saw my companions breathe a collective sigh of relief. Perhaps admitting to the tooth thing had not been a good idea. Maybe I should have made them pry my jaws open to find out for themselves.
My concern was short-lived though. Evidently the doctor didn’t feel it was very sporting to pick on women.
After that I was subjected to rigorous testing. My height and weight were recorded. I was shoved into a booth with my back to a tester while he transmitted nearly inaudible pitches to my ears in a random fashion. I’m pretty sure he tried to trick me on some by asking if I’d heard something when I was sure I hadn’t.
The final test was monitoring my heart rate in several states…resting, sitting and after a minute or two of jumping jacks. The tests were administered to me by a medical technician with a great sense of humor…which turned out to be a good thing.
Knowing what the technician would find though, I just waited it out.
I tried to relax while sitting there on the paper-covered gurney, swinging my purple-socked feet while trying to keep the bathrobe from exposing too much. To my left, the technician was all business…looking at his watch while holding onto my wrist.
“It’s a bit fast,” he declared when he was done.
“Yes I know…it always has been. Let me guess…76 bpm?”
He smiled widely, showing a dazzling amount of white teeth in his dark face.
“Right on the dot,” he agreed. “Let’s see what it is laying down.”
I scrunched down onto the crinkly paper trying to think calm thoughts as he took my pulse. The technician furrowed his brow and said nothing for a moment.
“Ummm…let’s do some jumping jacks and we’ll check the rate after that,” he finally said, avoiding any reference to my previous heart rate.
Luckily I’m pretty good at jumping jacks…although it’s hard to keep traction on a linoleum floor when you are wearing purple fuzzy socks, let me tell ya.
Once I’d stopped, he took my pulse…nodded and seemed to make up his mind about something. I didn’t have to be a mind reader to know exactly what his thought was. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him…so to speak. He patted the top of the gurney and asked me to lie down again.
Patiently he kept count…and then just blinked once at the result.
“Do you want me to do some more jumping jacks?” I asked.
Instead of answering my question, he just folded his arms and looked down at my prostrate form. “Woman…WHAT are you thinking about?”
Without thinking I blurted out the first thing that came to mind…”Not YOU.”
I just can’t help that sitting, my bpm is 76 and after exercising it drops to about 68. While conversely, laying down for some inexplicable reason causes my heart rate to jump to 84 bpm.
Anyway…I did pass my physical and was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Colorado. The only problem was I had a tough time envisioning signing six years of my life away. It seemed like such a long time…at the time. And that’s how I decided to become a petro-chemical engineer.
So why didn’t I? Oh lots of reasons…most of them being financial and not too few of them being social and my youthful eagerness to get out there and start making mistakes on my own. But probably the biggest reason I left this dream behind was because I realized I was just too damned dangerous to be allowed in any laboratory.
This wasn’t a recent revelation. In high school, I never would have survived Physics if it had not been for Burton Kaliski and David Zona, my lab partners. The three of us had been friends since I moved to New Hampshire my freshman year…and we were probably three of the biggest misfits in the entire school.
David could always be seen bouncing down the halls and the sight of his dark curly hair and rabbit toothed smile never failed to bring a smile to my own lips. He could never say hi to anyone without making a fart joke and thinking it was cool. Burton on the other hand was the class genius…and I mean that literally. The first time I had met him was at a school dance. Of all the boys that could have asked me to dance, it had to be the runt of the litter...which can be uncomfortable to a teenage girl who is taller than average.
But he was so sweet and bumbling that before I knew it, I had adopted him and throughout the school years that followed, I always thought of him as my secret treasure. My forte was English and History while Burton was a natural when it came to all forms of Science and Mathematics. Our knowledge complimented each other very well and it was not unusual for us to pool our resources to stay ahead. David was our comic relief and kept us both sane.
Although we weren’t always in the same classes, each year we always managed to get the same science course together. Inevitably we insisted on being lab partners. Neither Burton nor David had a sexist bone in their body, but I was still voted to be the group record-keeper during experiments. At least, I’m pretty sure it was because of my writing skills that I was given this position and in no way related to the many near-accidents I might have caused along the way while trying to actually perform the experiments.
Our teacher, Mr. Grew, happened to have his desk very close to our lab table and became very good at ducking whenever I happened to lose control of something I had to swing. He never blinked an eye when I shattered a glass cabinet. Burton was very good at covering up…uh I mean, recovering the data that would give us the correct answers.
“But, Burton…that’s not the number I have written here,” I would patiently explain as he worked out the final graphs.
“I know…but do you want THAT answer or the RIGHT answer?” he would state matter-of-factly. And who was I to argue with a future MIT graduate?
But high school was not enough to convince me completely that I lacked the skills to be a petro-chemical engineer. It took college to do that. If dumping the entire contents of a beaker containing Sodium Hydroxide onto the teaching assistant wasn’t enough of an indication, then nearly causing a chemical explosion that might have taken out half the campus should have.
My lab partners and I were watching the flask with great trepidation as its contents began to furiously bubble, expanding at an alarming rate. Both of them brought their notepads up to their chests to use as body armor as they started to back away slowly.
“Should it be doing that?” one tremulously asked.
Well I was pretty sure it shouldn’t…and I was just as sure that I needed to stop it from doing that as soon as possible. Deciding it couldn’t hurt…more…I began to furiously titrate one of the “unknown” test liquids into the flask. Drop by drop…and then as time became more critical I just figured in for a penny…in for a pound…and opened it wide so that it streamed into the flask.
To my relief, the contents began to churn slower and whatever hungry chemical beast lurked beneath the bubbly surface was evidently sated by my sacrifice, for all motion abruptly ceased. For all I knew, the contents could have been stomach acid and I’d just given it a healthy dose of liquid Tums. Triumphantly, I looked up from my victory….
Only to find every student in the room huddled against the far wall, crouching beneath notepads and books. Oh c’mon….it wasn’t THAT bad. At least I was pretty sure that Burton would have enjoyed it.
But of course now we’ve gone completely off-track and must get back to the original beginning of this tale. There I was…an accountant…and not a petro-chemical engineer. I’m sure we can agree it was a better, safer decision…for everyone concerned.
Toward the end of my career with this one particular company, Seabrook became an all-consuming concern. Now that it was finally ready to come online, after so many construction delays, we still had one hurdle to overcome. Licensing.
In order to receive that license, we had to pass FEMA’s regulations and that included an evacuation plan for the residents that lived within a certain plume radius of the reactor. Unfortunately for us, one our biggest opponents was Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts at the time. In a stunning feat of governorship, he decided that the best way to stall the licensing of the nuclear reactor he so detested would be to refuse to submit an evacuation plan for his constituents.
Fortunately for us, while FEMA makes it mandatory to have one, it does not mandate who is responsible for actually coming up with or implementing it. The owners of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant decided to form an even broader alliance and they came up with a wild scheme to entice paid volunteers from all of their companies to create one.
A lot of people volunteered. The idea of being paid AND having a part in something so huge…not to mention getting off of work for the drills…was not something to be sneezed at. Our applications were carefully scrutinized and we were then sorted into jobs that were best suited to our abilities. Obviously, my previous lab experience had not come into play, or I wouldn’t have been assigned the position of “Route Guide,” probably the lowest of the low on the totem pole.
Still, I was in good company. My partner was a true stud-muffin…and a hell of a lot of fun as well. Although technically, our job was to drive specified routes and record the length of time it took to travel them…it was probably a lot more fun than it should have been since Steve and I enjoyed our rides along the coast in his Camaro, stopping occasionally for a loaf of fresh Italian bread at his favorite bakery, or having an impromptu picnic at Plum Island. The only time it was ever serious was when we had to stop in a town that hated the power plant to the point where there was not a free inch of real estate that didn’t carry a No-Nukes sign of one ilk or another. In those cases, we carefully tucked the dosimetry badges and tags that hung around our neck into our shirts before entering an establishment.
But despite enjoying ourselves, the volunteer organization functioned rather well. It was a rocky start, but eventually we became a well-oiled machine and believed ourselves to be ready for the test. Prior to actually doing it though, the companies brought in an expert to review our plans and give his opinion on our general performance.
The auditorium was crammed with hundreds of bodies the day of the big “rah-rah let’s show them what we can do!” speech. Even the expert was in attendance. I stood on tip-toe to get a glimpse of the man that would decide whether we were ready or not.
Imagine my surprise when I actually recognized him. “Mr. Grew! Mr. Grew!” I yelled and waved to him as I bounced up and down. “It’s me! Laurie!”
Recognition came quickly and with a big grin, he playfully yelled back, “You aren’t working anywhere near the reactor are you?” At least…I’m pretty sure he meant it playfully…and I just imagined a look of relief when I said that I didn’t.
Either way…I’m sure that the world is safer since I’m an accountant.