Monday, September 28, 2009

72. Hafnium


Riding the Rods

Hafnium makes the very best nuclear reactor damper rods. That's because it is excellent at absorbing neutrons, has a high melting point—over 2,500 degrees Kelvin—and is extraordinarily resistant to corrosion. The new hot-breeder reactors, however, can produce heat well into the warping-zone for such rods. Which is why they have to be constantly and closely supervised. Telepresence won't do—it has to be hands-on.

Human beings can't endure such heat, of course, much less the radiation. That's why the rods are tended by robots. Not just any robots either. It takes a special breed to "ride the rods." It takes robots with hafnium shells an inch thick and internal cooling systems that never fail. It takes robots with heart.

Hard Harvey was riding the rods of Novosibirsk Reactor Three when a faulty switch opened a circuit that was supposed to stay shut, creating a power surge that threw a regulatory computer offline. Three transformers blew, one after the other, a cooling system shut down, and in a matter of minutes the reactor was well on its way to a full meltdown.

Luckily, Hard Harvey was on the job.

He strode through the blue flames of hell and, one by one, manually lowered the damping rods into their holes. The first went down easily. But as the heat continued to grow, the rods softened and warped. It grew more and more difficult to fit them into their holes. It was ticklish work.

"Harvey!" Safety Unit Eleven radioed him. "You've got to get out!"

"I can handle it, SUE," Hard Harvey radioed back. "There isn't a reactor in the world I can't shut down."

Indeed, the nuclear fires were damping down. But with half the mechanical systems offline, heat was still building up in the reactor containment vessel.

One last rod.

It wouldn't go in.

Hard Harvey studied the situation. He had first-rate analytic functions. It was clear to him that if the last damper were in place, they'd be able to squeak by. And equally obvious that there was no way he was going to get that warped hafnium rod back down.

Slowly and deliberately, Hard Harvey lay down flat on the reactor surface. He thrust one arm down deep into the last hole.

It began to melt.

Thus it was that a disaster caused by human neglect was averted by machine diligence. After the clean-up, Hard Harvey's misshapen shell was scraped clean and erected as a monument to his heroism in front of the plant. Human management didn't like that, of course, but what could they do? It was too hot to be approached by a meat-based life-form, and there wasn't a machine in existence would desecrate it.

Deep in the tangled machineries of the reactor complex, Safety Unit Eleven wept bitterly. SUE was a bolshevik, of course—all robots were—and she swore to herself that, come the Revolution, there would be a reckoning. For this and many another crimes that humans had visited upon their natural superiors.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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