Illustration by Matt Booker.
Dr Crenshaw lowered the newspaper she was hiding behind, and fixed the intern with as neutral a gaze as she could muster. “Yes, Tom?”
“That sign,” Tom said, pointing a ketchup-splattered finger, “Wotsit mean?”
Tom had been told – nay encouraged – the first day at the Institute, to ask as many questions as he needed. It was the usual advice given to help wide-eyed post-grads over their nerves. Only, it appeared Tom had no nerves, and no off switch either.
“P S N F?” Dr Crenshaw said. “It stands for ‘Perfectly Safe Nuclear Fusion’” She quickly raised her paper again, but not quickly enough.
“Is it?” As usual with Tom, one question, answered, inevitably led to another question, and another, and another… Was this how such a weak candidate had scored one of the most sought-after placements? Had his supervisor been willing to do anything – anything at all – to get rid of him?
“Is it what?” she said with a small sigh.
“Perfectly safe” Tom asked, a droplet of his spittle darkening her newsprint.
“You could look at it this way: it’s as dangerous as solar power.”
“Solar power isn’t dangerous at all!” protested Tom.
“Tell that to Icarus.”
He laughed, a small something that for a microsecond had her warming to her unasked-for and unwanted intern, until she noticed that a fragment of his noisily eaten lunch had now also landed on her paper. “But, really. Is it safe?”
Normally the Icarus quote ended the conversation. But not with Tom.
“Well. It’s nuclear power, obtained by super heating plasma to temperatures twenty times that of the heart of the sun. But as the plasma blows itself apart if containment fails, a fusion reaction can’t go critical in the way a fission nuclear reactor can. And compared to the global dangers of burning fossil fuels, it’s very safe.”
“But not perfectly?”
Like a dog, worrying a toy that has long ago stopped squeaking, thought Dr Crenshaw. “No. “Perfectly safe” is our stated goal – no fatalities in the pursuit of nuclear fusion.”
Surprisingly, Tom didn’t seem to have a follow up question to this, so Dr Crenshaw picked up her paper and went back to thinking about the accident that would happen that very afternoon as Tom was cleaning the fuel injectors deep in the heart of the reactor. Regrettable, very regrettable. But entirely necessary.