Thirty-Six Views of the Nuclear Reactor by Will Dowd

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power plant - bubble looking building with tall smoke stack next to it; industrial complex



At first glance, it could be a water tower.


But look again.


The two-story dome at the corner of Albany Street and Massachusetts Ave is a functioning nuclear reactor.


Most people don’t notice it.


It’s set back from the street and often enveloped in great puffs of industrial steam.


Bathed in afternoon light, it’s skin appears robin’s egg blue. On winter evenings, I’ve seen it achieve shades of periwinkle. On bright mornings, when everything is wet and sun-dazzled, it can be painful to look at.


The nuclear reactor stands behind fencing which, to my eyes, looks utterly scalable.


Whenever I walk past, I run a finger along its cold wire mesh.


“It’s perfectly safe,” my friend says.


“It’s a 5 megawatt nuclear reactor that generates weapons-grade uranium,” I say.


“It was designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747,” she says.


“It looks like it’s made of rubber,” I say.


“It’s self-protecting,” she says. “Even if someone manages to break in, they’d still have to find the core in total darkness, pry open the 10-ton lid, then dive through 20 feet of glowing blue water to get to the fissile material—at which point they’d promptly die of radiation poisoning.”


“I’m not worried about jewel thieves,” I say.


“Then what are you worried about?”


“It’s run by students,” I say. “Eighteen-year-old students.”


She shrugs. “Eighteen-year-olds fight in wars.”


Inside the nuclear reactor, the student operators wear yellow coats.


They usually get stuck working the night shift. They do their homework, browse the internet, and occasionally check for a meltdown. They describe it as “glorified babysitting.”


After moving across the street from the nuclear reactor, I have trouble sleeping


I buy a sleep mask, but it can’t block out the glare of the idea of the nuclear reactor.


The reactor itself never sleeps: neutrons careen through its core at all hours of the night, irradiating silicon chips for microcircuits and gold seeds to be one day implanted inside cancer patients.


On cold nights, I stand on the roof and huff rings of breath at the reactor, trying to lasso the thing.


One night, I see red and blue lights dancing at the base of the dome, as if the reactor has been pulled over. I watch as spent fuel rods are loaded into the back of a shipping container. Two state troopers look on from their cruisers. The truck driver, who has a long, nerve-wracking drive to South Carolina ahead of him, gulps black coffee from a steaming thermos.


I start nodding off in the back of cavernous lecture halls. I dream of giant mushrooms encircled by barbed-wire fences.


My friend sleeps fine, though she wears her sneakers to bed in case an idea comes to her in a dream and she has to sprint to the lab.


The other day, while working with silicon ingots, an unnamed operator at the reactor was exposed to almost one year’s worth of radiation in just a few hours.


I tear out a newspaper article about the incident and carry it around in my pocket to show my friend.


I begin researching previous safety violations at the nuclear reactor. I start a little scrapbook.


Here’s my favorite:

One June morning, the sole operator in the control room stopped responding to his radio, his phone, and his pager. MIT police were summoned. They pounded on the door to no effect. Should the remote emergency shutoff switch be flicked? The seconds seemed to melt into each other as they debated. Meanwhile, deep inside the blue dome, the operator slept soundly in his chair.


My friend is unimpressed by this story.


“So living next to a nuclear reactor doesn’t worry you at all?” I ask.


She is silent for a long time. “If the worst does happen, it will happen in a flash,” she says. “We won’t even know it.”


Some nights, lying in bed, I swear you can hear the nuclear reactor.


When the winds come flying off the river and wrap around the dome, it makes a soft crooning like dune song.


Listen closely and you can hear it singing us all to sleep.

Will DowdWill Dowd is the author of Areas of Fog, a collection of lyric essays. His writing and art have appeared in Post Road Magazine, The Rialto, LitHub, Poets & Writers online, Tin House online,, and elsewhere. He lives and works in the Boston area.






STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Crash575 -Wikipedia Commons

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