It was three in the morning, and Fairview Station was quiet. An operator on rounds out by the river water pumping station had reported a bad storm coming in from the west, but at his post in the heart of the power plant, Steve Borden was well isolated from the outside world. The paperwork was light this shift, and he took a moment to relax, absently buttoning and unbuttoning the collar of his white linen shirt. He thought of Marie. Perhaps she was finally getting a good night's sleep. Long before its arrival, their first child was making its presence felt.
Steve stretched his long legs beneath the desk as he looked through the glass of the shift supervisor's office into the central area of the control room. A row of curved countertops, covered with handles, buttons, knobs, and lights, jutted out from the far wall. Above these control panels were checkerboards of wallet-sized rectangles, each block labeled with a specific problem that could occur in the plant. At the moment, only a few of these “annunciators” were shining, backlit by amber lights. Over the central panel, splitting the banks of annunciators in two, was a circle, a yard in diameter, that was filled in by ninety-four glowing red tiles. The lights indicated that all of the control rods were withdrawn from the core. The nuclear reactor was at full power. Observing the plant’s operation was the chief control room operator. A rotund figure, his permanently flushed face topped by curled blond hair, he was slowly moving back and forth from panel to panel. Reviewing a procedure at a nearby table was his assistant, a young Hispanic man in a blue and red baseball jersey. With a year now under its belt, Fairview Station was churning out over half a billion watts of electricity for Hoosier Electric and northern Indiana.
Steve returned to his work, but a buzzing alarm soon broke the quiet and an annunciator brightened and began blinking. The chief operator stepped over to the panel. He studied the flashing message, then pulled a hand from the pocket of his blue jeans and pushed a button. The buzzer and the blinking stopped. Steve had looked up, but only for a moment. There was no reason to be concerned. The previous shift had confirmed that the instrument that was setting off the alarm was malfunctioning, and maintenance had been asked to fix the device.
Alarms suddenly began blaring and most of the overhead lighting disappeared. Steve jumped up and rushed into the darkened control room just as the chief operator said: “Reactor scram!”
The core display on the wall was now changing colors: its solid circle of red lights switching over to green. The reactor was automatically shutting down.
“Main steam lines isolated!” the assistant operator reported. “Pressure relief valve lifted.” He glanced at other readings. “We've lost offsite power. Primary dead, no transfer to backup!”
Steve hurried to a panel on the left. “Diesel generators running!” he called out. “Loading now.” The room brightened as the absent lights overhead returned.
“Reactor level at 156,” the chief operator said. He punched a button, and the alarm horns fell silent.
“Rods full in,” the assistant operator said. “Reactor power at zero.”
“Generator's tripped. Turbine's tripped,” Steve said.
“Reactor pressure 10-50. Last pressure relief closed. Creeping on up.”
With the situation under some control, Steve had a moment to piece together what had just happened. Normally, the safety systems at Fairview Station did not receive their electricity from the plant itself, but rather from transmission lines that passed near the site. But something had happened to that source -- maybe the storm had brought it down -- and then the backup supply lines had failed to automatically take over the job. The reactor had then shut down, as it was designed to do in such circumstances, and huge valves had also closed in order to seal off the radioactive core from the rest of the plant. Thanks to the diesel generators located on site, electric power for the safety systems was available again within a few seconds.
At the moment, Steve knew, no pump was running to supply the water that was always needed to prevent the reactor’s fuel from melting, but there was plenty of time to get one started. With any luck, the shift supervisor told himself, repairs could be made and the plant restarted within a few hours. “Get STurDI-2 going and raise level back up to normal,” Steve ordered the chief operator. “Then STurDI-1 in recirc mode, and the VEPI heat exchangers in torus cooling. Let's bring pressure down.”
Paul Hendricks waited for his burly classmate to squeeze beneath the thick pipe, then easily ducked under the obstacle with his smaller frame. Stepping out onto the polished concrete floor of the large industrial hall, his eyes were immediately drawn to the center of the open area, where three rumbling, bus-sized machines were lined up end to end, their smooth, pea-green casings reflecting sunbeams that streamed in through tall windows. “This, right here, is where electricity is born,” the guide shouted above the din, as the small group gathered around him. “We have two turbines, then the generator.”
A smile creased Paul’s narrow face as he removed his hard hat and swept a stray lock of chestnut hair away from his brown eyes. Since high school he had been interested in how energy was produced, and he had learned the basics -- that household electricity was the vibrating of tiny electrons, that this invisible shuddering represented power and force just as surely as a locomotive racing down the tracks -- but it was here that the whole story came together.
The tall, angular tour guide, who was not far removed from Paul’s age of twenty years, led the students up to the nearest huge machine at one end of the long row. “This is the generator,” he said, patting the thundering device. “We're at 100% power right now. About four hundred megawatts -- four hundred million watts.”
Paul gazed at the rounded green casing. Inside it was a huge magnet, a massive cylinder that was being spun round and round within a thick cage of wire. The moving magnetic field caused electrons in the wire to vibrate back and forth. This was electricity in the making: the power used to rotate the magnet was being transferred into the wire. One form of energy into another.
The guide gestured back toward the two turbines and pointed out the pipes, almost a yard in diameter, which plunged into the top of each enormous machine. “Those are the main steam lines, direct from the boiler.”
“How much steam is going through?” one of the students asked.
“Over six thousand gallons a minute, at full power, to keep the turbines rolling.”
Paul nodded. A lot of heat was going down that pipe. A lot of energy. Something had to keep the generator cranking round and round. The force could be a waterfall, or the wind, but if a great deal of electricity was desired, heat was usually the simplest way to extract the energy from nature and use it to maintain the magnet’s rotation. Heat could produce a pressurized gas, such as steam, which could be used to spin the windmill blades of a turbine shaft that was bolted onto the end of the generator magnet. Some plants got their heat by burning coal –- a hundred railroad cars a day at a unit like this, Paul had seen -- while others used natural gas or even nuclear reactors. But it all came back to heat. Modern society hadn't really discarded the central hearth used for cooking and warmth. All those little fires, in little huts, had just been moved to one place. The power plant.
The tour stopped next in the control room, where the bemused utility crew stood off to one side while Paul and his classmates shuffled past the rows of dials, switches and colored lights. To Paul, it was like visiting the ultimate video game. The guide then led them down through a floor of metal grating and into the huge basement. The area was damp and smelled of grease, and there was a grimy coating of coal dust on every surface. In the distance, the rumbling of the turbines could be heard, and felt. The group quickly entered a maze of dull-colored piping that here and there curved aside to display a throbbing pump, or a hulking tank, or a complex assortment of valves. Paul found himself stepping around thin puddles of oily water. Dad would get a kick out of all this -- he worked so hard just to fix that one leaky pipe.
The last stop on the tour was the cooling towers: a pair of long, five-story-high structures, each with a row of funnels on top that from a distance had reminded Paul of ocean liners. Water poured out beneath each funnel and cascaded down the sides of the huge wooden frameworks, while clouds of steam billowed out overhead.
“Each cooling tower is longer than a football field,” the guide said, his voice grown hoarse. “We use them to chill water from the river, which then goes into the plant to cool down the condenser. That’s the big tank where the all the steam goes after it leaves the turbines. Cooling down the used steam helps suck the gas following along behind it past the turbine blades. It makes the plant more efficient.” The guide cleared his throat. “Some units use a different type of tower. Huge funnels. Those big white things at
As the tour broke up and Paul headed with the group towards the parking lot, he looked back over his shoulder at the collection of drab brick and glass buildings. It must be satisfying, he thought, to walk through such a place and understand what each piece of equipment was doing. Someday, he hoped, he could do that himself.
Leaving behind the roadside bar and its neon beer signs, Vitaly crossed the chilled gravel to his car. Few from the staff of Grissom Air Force Base had ventured out this evening, and he had heard little worth reporting to the Center. But not every attempt to gather intelligence was expected to be a success. His duty was to listen, or to strike up a conversation if that seemed a better way to glean information. Tonight, he had discussed baseball with a staff sergeant from
Cold crept into Vitaly’s fingers as he wiped the thin layer of condensation off the side windows of his aging brown, four-door sedan. Climbing in, he turned the key and flipped on the heater, then let the car bounce out through the rutted exit and into the street. Tomorrow, he would get some rest, and then it was back to his regular job. John Donner must keep putting in the time until he had earned another vacation. Then Vitaly could go home.
Yelena. He missed her: her soft brown eyes, her body in bed next to him, her laugh, her smile. His wife's letters were full of longing as well, but she was learning to cope, and her family had been settled into a comfortable new apartment because of his “contributions to the State.” Vitaly was proud of that.
He pointed the car north along an empty highway. He was truly living the life of a soldier now. Cold, lonely, and in enemy territory.
End Post 3
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
“That is a thermoluminescent dosimeter, or film badge for short.”