A Desperate Conversation
At the far end of the office a woman stared into a three-cubic-foot hologram that floated just above her mahogany paneled desk. Jeff couldn’t quite make out the images in the hologram, but it seemed to be a control room with several men wearing white laboratory coats.
“Ms. Walker,” her secretary said. “Your guests are here.”
Helen Walker was President Clarke’s National Security Advisor, and in Jeff’s opinion, one of the most capable people in government. He had worked several contracts with her and they got along well, unusual for him. Most government bureaucrats annoyed him and he didn’t hide his feelings. Helen Walker was different.
“Jeff, so good to see you,” Helen called out.
“How they hanging, Helen.”
Dressed in a dark grey pants suit and white blouse, Helen came around her desk and walked toward them, She was forty-six, medium height and maintained a trim figure that always caught his eye. Short brown hair framed an attractive, intelligent face. He thought she would be a knockout if she paid more attention to makeup and clothes, but maybe her job dictated a conservative appearance. Regardless, she was a heavy hitter in the administration.
Helen gave him a hug and then turned to Lisa. “You must be Miss Mitchell.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Walker. Please call me Lisa.”
Helen said, “Jeff speaks highly of you.”
“Yes, he says you’re not half bad at your job, high praise coming from him.” Helen smiled at Jeff. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him say a nice thing about anyone else.”
Jeff said, “I’m hard on the outside but just a creampuff on the inside.”
Helen chuckled. “Okay, creampuff, let’s get down to business. Please sit down; we have a great deal to discuss.”
Jeff and Lisa sat in a blue camelback sofa, while Helen took the tan Mary Washington chair next to them. The office, conservatively furnished with a brass chandelier and cherry bookcase, had more of a big government feel than the colonial look Helen was aiming for. Not that it mattered.
“Everything I speak of today is highly confidential, and you can’t disclose it to anyone, even employees of your company.” Helen said. “First I’ll tell you the punch line and then I’ll present all the logic leading up to our decision.” She paused and then said, “Jeff, we want you and your company to take over security for all our nuclear plants under development. We also want you to review security for all the existing plants.”
“But Helen, I don’t know squat---”
She signaled him to stop. “I know nuclear security isn’t your area of expertise. Hear me out.”
Jeff glanced at Lisa, who was staring intently at Helen. Nuclear power! Dental x-rays made him nervous.
“It’s no secret that we are running out of oil,” Helen said. “Our economy is based upon cheap energy, which is primarily generated from oil, natural gas, coal and to a lesser extent, nuclear power. Oil and gas are non-renewable fossil fuels that are rapidly being depleted.”
“I stopped for gas this morning,” Jeff said. “Cost me $28 a gallon.” He smiled. “Which I intend to bill to your department.”
A young aide entered with a silver coffee service, placed the tray on the coffee table and then quietly left the room. Jeff preferred tea, but coffee was better than nothing, so he poured a cup.
“World oil production peaked in 2010,” Helen said. “We had extracted roughly half of all the oil in the world. Located in big fields on land and off the coasts, this was the oil easiest to drill, extract and refine. As the good stuff became scarce, the world concentrated its efforts on tar sands and oil shale. Since this type of oil is solid, it’s incredibly difficult to recover. At this time, we have used most of even that gunk.
“Since 2010, oil production has declined by more than 80%, which has pushed oil prices through the roof. Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the coastal oil fields off Alaska helped somewhat, but oil production has peaked there, too. We don’t anticipate any major new oil fields, so production will continue to decline, making gasoline the scarce, very expensive fuel you so eloquently pointed out. Basically, our trucks and cars are dinosaurs; in another ten to fifteen years, the combustion engine will be an antique. All the usable oil may be gone.”
“What about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?” Jeff asked. “I thought we had a billion barrels of oil stored in salt caverns.”
Helen didn’t respond at first, then said, “Let’s say we don’t have as much oil stored there as many believe.”
“Shit,” Jeff breathed.
“And whatever we have there will be used for producing medical products, fertilizer, keeping the internet repaired and building nuclear power plants. Most people don’t realize that oil isn’t just used for gas and heating.”
“Without gasoline, how do we ship food to the stores?” Lisa asked. “How do we commute to our jobs?”
“We have a solution, but it will be difficult,” Helen said. “And you have yet to hear the worst of our problem.
“Next, consider the natural gas situation. When I say natural gas, I mean methane, which makes up about 75% of the gas used commercially.” She paused, and then said, “I’ll skip the details --- the problem is that it is very expensive to extract and transport in North America. In addition, it’s a dirty fuel, not as dirty as coal, but it will still foul the environment. We have more gas than oil, but we believe that economic gas reserves have peaked as well.
“So we import natural gas from Russia and the Middle East,” Jeff said with a shrug. “What’s the problem?”
“Their natural gas supplies are becoming depleted, so they have drastically cut back exports. Our supply of natural gas will be virtually gone in twenty to thirty years.”
“I didn’t realize natural gas was being depleted so quickly,” Lisa said. The room was quiet as she poured a cup of coffee.
Ten to fifteen years, Jeff thought. Our economy will collapse. It’ll be worse than FDR’s depression.
“You’re not going to tell us we’re running out of coal, too?” Jeff asked.
“No, we have plenty of coal --- that’s not the problem. We get almost half our electricity by burning coal, but it’s a dirty fuel. Coal generates toxic air pollution, you know, heavy metals, carbon dioxide, all manner of filth. We’ve cleaned it somewhat over the years, but coal will always be dirty. I’d hate to breathe the air of a country that relied on coal for all its energy.”
Helen’s voice dropped and Jeff had to concentrate to pick up her words. “Coal mining is also hugely destructive to the environment. Strip mining destroys our land and poisons our water. It also spits out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which may lead to climate change. Any way you look at it, coal has big problems.”
“Which brings us to the subject of today’s meeting?” Jeff asked.
“Yes, nuclear power, while far from perfect, is our best option.” Her voice remained low. “It’s clean, uranium is plentiful, spent fuel can be reprocessed, and modern breeder reactors create more fuel than they burn. The safety record for nuclear plants in the US is excellent, although nobody can overlook the disasters in Japan and the Ukraine. It’s not a total solution; nuclear power can charge batteries for plug-in electric vehicles, but batteries are impractical for airplanes, except for short flights by small planes. We would have to conserve our remaining oil for airlines and the military.”
“So you’re planning on building a shitload of nuclear power plants?” Jeff asked. “That’s going to make many of the environmentalists very unhappy.”
“Do you know how many reactors are currently in operation in the US?” Helen asked Jeff, her voice once again strong.
“Not a clue.”
“About one hundred and twenty,” Lisa said.
Helen smiled. “Very good, Lisa. One hundred twenty-seven.”
“How did you know that?” Jeff asked Lisa.
“What you don’t know about me would fill the Grand Canyon.”
A young aide entered the room again and whispered in Helen’s ear.
Helen stood up. “We’re moving the meeting,” she said. “Please come with me.”
After Helen had turned and started walking toward the doorway, Jeff looked at Lisa and shrugged.
Helen led them down the hall, turned left, and then proceeded to the end of the corridor and stopped at an open doorway. Jeff peeked over her shoulder into the Oval Office.
“Mr. President,” Helen said, peering into the room.
Listening to a voice on the speakerphone, a broad-shouldered man with a beefy face looked up. “Come on in,” President Clarke said. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Jeff had never been in the Oval Office, but it was just like what he had seen in the movies: creamy white walls, colonial styling, and an ornate presidential desk with the flag behind it. Helen led them in and sat on a plush white sofa, while Jeff and Lisa shuffled past a wooden coffee table to an identical couch.
The man at the desk didn’t look happy. Now in the second year of his administration, President Josh Clarke’s popularity had been falling steadily due to an ongoing recession. Energy costs had risen dramatically, driving inflation into double digits. Waiting lines had been building at gas stations, home heating oil had been rationed in several states, and unemployment was rising.
Clarke quickly finished his telephone conversation and came around his desk to join them. “Pleasure to meet you, Casale,” Clarke said while shaking hands. After greeting Lisa, he sat next to Helen.
Clarke cleared his throat. “Helen tells me that your firm is the best in the security business. That true ?”
“Who am I to argue with Helen?” Jeff replied.
“What would you think if I said that I have a job for you?” Clarke asked. “Something like, let’s say, the future of the country depended on your success.”
“I’d say our fees just went up.”
“I’m deadly serious, Casale. I’m betting the country’s future on this project. Your life will be at risk if you take it on.” Clarke glanced at Lisa. “Yours, too.”
“All I know is that this project has something to do with nuclear power,” Jeff replied. “I can’t make a commitment without knowing what’s going on.”
“Fair enough,” Clarke said. “What I’m about to tell you is top secret, but I suppose you already know that.” He paused and took a cigarette from an antique cigarette holder on the coffee table. After lighting up, he said, “You don’t mind, do you?”
Lisa and Jeff shook their heads. Jeff added, “I love smoke. Toughens the lungs.”
A sliver of a smile briefly appeared on Clarke’s lips as he glanced at Helen. “I see what you mean.” He turned back to Jeff. “As I’m sure Helen has explained, the country is running out of energy.” Clarke took a drag on his cigarette, and then said, “The greenies wasted more than twenty years trying to make the so-called renewables into major energy sources. However, sun and wind are too unreliable and inefficient to provide more than twenty percent of our energy. Combined. That leaves a big hole. If we don’t come up with an answer, the computer models predict the US will regress a full century, back to an agrarian society. The automobile will be a memory and most homes will burn coal or wood for warmth. People will fight over scraps of food. Modern medicine will be affordable only by the elite. The models say our population will drop under one hundred million by 2060.
“The only solution is nuclear power. We need to build almost two hundred nuclear power plants over the next two decades just to maintain a reasonably level supply of electricity. This is a tremendous undertaking that will stretch our resources to the limit under the best of circumstances.”
“Two hundred nuclear plants in twenty years?” Lisa said. “That’s about one plant coming online every month, Mr. President.”
“I know it sounds impossible,” the President replied. “But we are going to do it. We wasted years pissing around with wind and solar power. Now we have no other options.”
“It may not be as difficult as it seems,” Helen added. “The design work has been completed for an advanced nuclear reactor. We plan to standardize on a Generation VI design that will shrink construction time to twenty-eight months. It’s called an Integral Fast Reactor, a breeder that produces more fuel than it consumes. A standardized design will also expedite licensing and reduce capital costs.”
“Where will you get the enriched uranium to power two hundred new reactors?” Lisa asked.
Helen looked at the President. “Not just uranium, the Integral Fast Reactor also burns plutonium,” he said. “Military warheads will be recycled to produce mixed oxide fuel specially designed for the new reactors. We’ll also reprocess the waste fuel that has been stored at reactor sites for years.”
“You plan to unilaterally disarm?” Jeff said. “Then what, deter the Chinese and Russians with spitballs. Or maybe I’m just so charming they won’t attack?”
“We don’t think we’ll have to recycle all the warheads,” Helen said. “And once we have a sufficient number of the new breeders in operation, we’ll produce all the fuel we need, and we’ll start building warheads to replace the ones we dismantled.”
“Do you actually have one of these new reactors up and running?” Lisa asked.
“We have a prototype under construction,” Helen replied.
“A prototype! You’re betting the ranch on a prototype?” Jeff said to Helen.
“The physics is well-understood,” Helen said. “Breeders were built by several nations, including us, back in the sixties. The US built a research reactor called the EBR-II in 1964 to demonstrate breeder technology. The reactor was a complete success: it ran for thirty years. During this period, many advances were built into the reactor. It was shut down because of politics, not any real problems.”
“Okay, maybe the technology works,” Jeff said. “There’s still one little-bitty concern: where are you going to find the construction teams to build all these power plants? There are only a handful of corporations that know how to build conventional nuclear plants, let alone this new super-nifty design.”
“See,” Helen said to President Clarke, “I told you he’d zoom in on our weakest point.” She focused on Jeff. “That’s our critical path, Jeff. We are pulling in every construction firm that builds power plants, whether they are focused on natural gas, coal, whatever, and seeding them with engineers from the nuclear industry. We’ll train them in nuclear power and monitor their work tightly until they’re up to speed. Remember, they only have to learn how to construct one type of plant, so they shouldn’t have any major problems.”
“And you want us to provide security for what … as many as a hundred simultaneous construction projects?” Lisa said.
Clarke smiled wistfully. “Not only that. You would also be responsible for security for all the new plants as they go into operation. Listen, I don’t expect you to staff all this work with your own people. We’ll get you anything you need: military, other security firms, subcontractors, whatever it takes. This is essentially the Second Manhattan Project, and you would be responsible for a big chunk of it.”
“We appreciate your confidence in us, Mr. President,” Lisa said, “but why turn security over to a private firm, one with no experience in the nuclear industry?
Clarke glanced at Helen and said, “Because there’s a leak somewhere within the federal government. There are fanatics who don’t want this project to succeed. The lunatic fringe of the environmental movement has coalesced around a leader named Gaia, who has provided the organization and planning lacking in the past. This Gaia has already stolen top secret information and murdered half a dozen people with critical roles in the project. In fact, Helen was almost killed last week. That convinced me that we need someone completely outside both the government and the nuclear industry to head up security. An organization not already penetrated by the fanatics.” He took a drag of his cigarette and said to Jeff, “Helen recommended you.”
“It will be a long and controversial project, Mr. President,” Jeff said. “Will you back us all the way?”
Clarke studied Jeff. “You’ll have my support every step.” He chuckled. “That is, unless you screw up.”
“We’ll need to see your project plans before we make a decision,” Lisa jumped in. “Just the high level documents so we can get a reading ---.”
“We’ll take the job,” Jeff interrupted.
The room was quiet for a moment, and then Clarke said, “I don’t want you to think you’re forced to take this project. I believe in making hard decisions, but it would be okay if you want to take a couple of days to get a better understanding of what we’re asking.”
“No need, we’re on board.”
“I’m surprised you made up your mind so quickly. You’re quite the patriot.”
“Patriot, schmatriot.” Jeff smiled at the President. “If we lose power, how am I going to take my morning shower? You think I’m taking a dip in the Potomac?”
Lisa buried her head in her arms while Helen and Clarke stared at Jeff.
“God help us,” the President said, “the deal is done”.