Friday, August 10, 2007

Waiting For Xenon

Last night at the dinner table, Russ started laughing out-of-the-blue.

"What's so funny?", I asked.

"Oh, just something hilarious that happened at work."

Let me tell you, folks, not a lot of hilarious things happen amongst nuclear engineers, so I perked up.

So he starts his story by giving us a little bit of Nuclear-Fun-Facts. (*Just a warning: I was feeling a few twinges of the snoozes a few minutes in. Science-minded, I am not. But I understand that the details are somewhat essential to "getting" the ending. So I'll challenge you to try to hang on as we work our way through the science lesson.)


Hilarious - By Russell:

Xenon, particularly Xenon-135, is a fission product neutron absorber that builds up in a reactor that has run for a while. After a reactor shutdown, the reactor may be "Xenon limited" or unable to start up because the amount of xenon that poisons the reactor cannot be compensated by removing the poison control rods.

Three-year-old Sophie looked at me, this "Uh oh, did I miss the funny part, Momma?" look on her face. I shook my head and pointed to Russ, like, "Keep listening, baby, the funny part is coming."

Xenon-135 is radioactive and has a half-life of 9.1 hours. That is, if at the beginning, I have 1000 units of Xenon-135, 9.1 hours later I will have 500 units. 9.1 hours later 250, …

Hmm. Okay. Nothing hilarious yet. Unless you count the spaghetti noodle halfway up Sophie's nose.

You have to wait until the Xenon-135 decays away before you can restart the reactor. Every reactor operator on the planet knows this and any manager of a nuclear power plant SHOULD know this. So, there is some time that has to be "wasted" in a control room while the xenon levels decrease.

Zzzzzzzz. Apparently, we were both starting to look a tad glazed over, because suddenly Russ gave us the "Funniness Coming Up" change-of-voice warning.


One of the guys that works with us was an inspector or operator at a TVA reactor in Tennessee.

A senior level manager of the plant walked into the control room and observed that none of the 3 or 4 reactor operators (RO) was doing anything important like operating the reactor. They were all sitting around - doing crosswords, reading, just talking. Wasting time.

Sophie and I perked up. YES. Talking. Wasting time. Things we knew about, and were somewhat gifted in.

Outraged by this apparent waste, the manager demanded, "WHAT ARE YOU GUYS DOING?!"

Yelling! Oh, boy! Sophie was delighted. The Up-The-Nose-Noodling stopped.

One of the RO's responded, "We're waiting for Xenon." (Thinking it was obvious what he meant.)

The manager screamed, "When Xenon gets here, you tell him I want to see him in my office! He is costing me a lot of money!!"

Before he barely even finishes telling it, Russ falls out guffawing again. Ya'll, I'm not kidding.  I think I heard a teeny snort.


So, admittedly, once we got past the "fission product neutron absorber" part of the story, it got better. In fact, it ended up being a pretty good little story - definitely ha ha-worthy.

But still.

Is it really roll-on-the-floor funny?

Perhaps it's a Science Guy thing.

Perhaps Russ has finally cracked under the pressure of his big DOE project at work and the stress of the upcoming move.

...Orrrrr perhaps you just have to be super-gifted and brilliant in all things nuclear to really GET the hilarity of xenon.

Regardless, I found Sophie's, "What happened to Daddy?" response hilarious.  :)


Anonymous said...

Tell Russell that I thought it was a great story! I laughed like crazy at the punchline. I did yawn a bit before we got there, though. Love, Mooms

Val said...

That's a great story. During the half-life talk, I was thinking, "I don't think the punch line will be worth this." Wrong! Very funny!

OK, keep me posted on the Shiloh thing. That's so exciting!

Number 31 said...

I can vouch that it's an even better story when heard in person!

The written word just doesn't do it justice... ;-)


Shayna said...

Only a hear and a half late here, but I think it's a hilarious story, AND an interesting explanation about the workings of a reactor!

I'm also getting a kick out of the similarity between "Xenon" and the alien overlord of the Christian Scientists, Xenu. :)

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