Episode 13


Wendell grimaced as he reached for the report, and he squeezed his swollen wrist. “I never knew owning a dog could be so dangerous.”

“He bite the hand that feeds him?” Darrel Fleck asked from his desk.

“No, I tripped over him.”

“I thought you said Karen wanted a cat.”

“She did. We settled on a dog and a new refrigerator.”

Fleck chewed thoughtfully on his gum. “I’m glad Marcia doesn’t drive those kind of bargains.”

“I got off easy. I promised her a trip down the shore last summer an’ we never made it.”


“The beach. The ocean.” Wendell grinned. “That’s how we say it back home.”

Fleck shrugged. “To each his own, I guess. So how’d you sweet talk this girl into marrying you, anyway?”

Wendell began studying the document in his hand. “You don’t wanna know.”

He had always wanted a dog, but there was no room for one while growing up in a crowded urban townhouse. But now, he and Karen had a place of their own, just east of Brixton. There, it was an easy drive for Karen up to the Hoosier Electric offices in South Bend, and her job as a corporate attorney. Her sister was also barely an hour away in Fort Wayne.

Wendell had sensed her drive and ambition from the first time they had met, around a table with mutual college friends at McGillan’s. Soon, they were spending long nights together, studying side by side for a few grueling hours before falling into each other’s arms. Two years ahead of Wendell, slight, blonde, and an inch taller, Karen had passed her bar exam a few weeks before he had received his diploma. A brief honeymoon cruise and then they had headed west to Indiana. Apart from the lack of cheesesteaks and his beloved Tastykakes, Wendell found he liked the small town atmosphere in Brixton, and he now busied himself with all the repairs that an old home needed. He also enjoyed having friends over after Mass, and they’d even had a Knights of Columbus picnic. Karen, too, was spending her free time on the house, browsing through stores looking for furniture or carpeting. Wendell had laid out a plot for a garden, but she’d been so busy that nothing had yet been planted. Still, they were settling in.

Finished with his reading, Wendell put the report down and stared through the glass into the control room. The control rod display was a circle of red lights, and the chief and assistant operators were casually monitoring the wide array of instruments, while the STA sat nearby at his desk. The reactor was at full power, with the feedwater pumps maintaining the boiling water inside the vessel at its usual 190 inches above the fuel. Steam, pressurized to 1000 pounds per square inch, was flowing into the main turbine.

With the plant coasting along, the young supervisor had been catching up on the latest industry news. “Yo, Darrel, did you read this?” he asked his partner. “Davis-Besse really took a run at it. They were losing water fast, and had to race ‘round the plant opening valves by hand.”

“Saw it. A bad deal,” Fleck said. He blew a bubble with his gum.

“Looks like if they hadn't gotten things back under control, the core would have been uncovered in an hour or so.”

“Maybe.” Fleck blew another bubble. “But that's why they keep us on shift. Nothin’ beats the human touch.”


The laborer was striding through the reactor building with a yellow trash bag. Once the package was delivered to the radwaste department, he could head home at last. He cut a corner, and the heavy bag tapped the edge of a rack full of instruments. Loud noises came from the EmShut tanks further down the corridor, but the worker ignored them. The plant was always full of sounds he couldn’t explain.


When the bank of annunciators sounded, Wendell and his partner jumped from their chairs.

“M.S.I.V. closure! Reactor scram!” the chief operator called out.

Christ! Wendell halted in front of the control rod display. The rods were automatically being shoved into the core by EmShut, and the last of the ninety-four lights was turning from red to green.

“All rods in!” the chief operator said.

A glance at the annunciators told Wendell the main steam isolation valves had slammed closed because high radiation had been sensed nearby. That might indicate a pipe leak –- but if so, it was now sealed off. The pressurized reactor vessel was “bottled up”. Still, the hot fuel in the shutdown reactor would continue to boil water for some time, and that new steam needed a place to go . . .

“P.R.V. lifted,” the assistant operator said. A pressure relief valve had automatically opened, allowing the new steam to flow down to the torus. This would keep reactor pressure within safe limits.

“Level down to 160 . . .” the chief operator reported. When the control rods had inserted, causing the tremendous heat output of the core to change to a warm glow, the bubbling foam over the fuel had collapsed. Water level in the vessel was now three feet below normal.

Come on, feedwater. Back up.

“. . . 155 . . .” the operator went on, “. . . 150 . . . there . . . feedwater ’s on it . . . level going up.” The feedwater pumps were automatically responding to the problem by sending more water to the vessel.


The STA had begun scanning the radiation meters for the plant. “All rads normal,” he said. “Even by the steam lines.”

“P.R.V. has auto-closed,” the assistant operator said. “Vessel pressure 925. Rising.”

“Good. What about the weld temps?”

The operator next peered at a recorder. “Temp change okay.”

Reducing pressure with a P.R.V. also cooled off the water in the reactor vessel, but too rapid a temperature change would create stress in the huge container at the welds where pipes were attached. Hairline cracks could form and then expand over the years until there was a leak. If there was any chance of that long-term problem, months of testing and repairs would have to be undertaken. But the pressure relief valve was operating according to plan, and automatically closing on time to prevent any concerns.

Thirty seconds into the event, Wendell had seen no complications after the initial, unexpected closing of the M.S.I.V.s. EmShut had scrammed the reactor, a P.R.V. had lifted for a time to divert excess steam, and feedwater had adjusted to return level to normal. There had been no need for any of the other emergency systems: STurDI-1, STurDI-2, VEPI, Fuel Spray, ARAFS -- all remained unused. And if radiation near the M.S.I.V.s was normal, as the STA had reported, there might not even be a real pipe leak.

Fleck stood nearby, a few steps back from the main panel. Arms crossed, chewing his gum, he watched impassively. “Larry, get torus coolin’ started,” he said. “Both trains.” The steam blown into the torus through the P.R.V. had warmed the water-filled tank, and that energy must be removed. There would soon be more steam arriving –- the core would remain hot for several hours.

“Torus cooling,” the chief operator repeated, as he shifted over to another panel.

“Pressure control mode in auto,” the assistant operator reported. “Valve open. Going 1000 to 900.” Periodically, a P.R.V. would now open to vent off steam into the torus.

Wendell moved up beside the assistant operator to check some of the key readings. “Level back to normal,” he said. “190.”

“Pressure control-” the assistant operator began, before catching himself in mid-sentence, “-wait . . . 875 . . . P.R.V. still open . . . 850 . . . still open. Not right.”

Oh, shit. Jesus! Wendell’s mind raced ahead. The P.R.V. should close automatically. If it allowed pressure to fall much farther, the rapid temperature change could still do long-term damage to welds on the reactor vessel.

“Still dropping . . . 800 . . .”

Either the valve was stuck, or the auto controls had failed. If the valve had jammed open, nothing could be done. The plant would be shut down for months, at least, checking the welds.

“. . . 750 . . .”

But if the automatic controls were the problem, they could be turned off. Maybe that’s it. Wendell opened his mouth, but the order came from Fleck:

“Disable auto pressure control. Go to manual.”

“Auto control . . . off,” the assistant operator said. “Manual. P.R.V. to close.”

Wendell watched the pressure meter. It wavered. And again. Come on…

A light on the panel changed color. “P.R.V. closed,” the operator said. His shoulders sagged with relief. “I’ve got manual control.”

At the same instant, Wendell saw the pressure meter halt its downward slide, and he let out a deep breath. Now the weld temperature… The young supervisor checked the recorder himself, tracing the thin red line across the marked paper. “Temp change still okay,” he reported. Wendell felt a weight being lifted from him. Still, it would be a long, long evening. An operator would now have to carefully watch pressure and manually open and close a P.R.V. while the reactor slowly cooled off. But it was far better than the alternative.


In his baggy anti-c’s, Gary walked down the main plant hallway, a bucket of tools dangling below one hand. The unexpected shutdown was giving maintenance an opportunity to work on one of the VEPI pumps.

“So, an oil leak?” Carol said. Also in a yellow jumpsuit, she had been assigned to monitor her husband’s work to ensure his radiation dose was kept as low as possible.

“Yah. But leak may not be the right word,” Gary said. “More like weep. Maybe just a nut or two to tighten.”

“Fine. You think we might get home at a reasonable hour?” Both had been working overtime for several days.

“I suppose. Gonna fix me a big dinner?” Gary said, smiling.

“No, husband, but I will buy you one. Any place with a nice salad.”

“Aw, and you’re gonna make me eat some of it, too.”

“Yes. Then you can have your huge slab of meat. We wouldn’t want that gut of yours to get any smaller.”

“Aw, Miss Car-o-l-l-l.” Gary looked at his wife with a mischievous grin.

“You’re welcome.” The two came to metal stairs and began clattering down to a lower level. “Think we’ll be online by Saturday?”

“So we can catch the concert? Probably. And this gal is good?”


“Will she do some Russian stuff? Prokofiev or somethin’?”


“Then I’ll work extra hard to get everything fixed,” Gary said, as they stopped in front of the VEPI room door.


“A little piece of metal?” Paul said, as he followed Langford through the reactor building.

“Correct. It was lodged inside the pressure sensor, so the P.R.V. never got the signal to close. They believe it’s scrap remaining from the factory. It must have been within a crevice and then was jarred free during the last calibration. Typically, there would also be a backup sensor, but given that the operators can work the valve themselves, a second unit was not installed.”

Langford came to a stop in front of an instrument rack and pointed at two black cubes.

“And these started the whole thing?” Paul said. “Bumped?”

“Yes. M.S.I.V. high radiation detectors. They receive signals from sensors on the other side of the wall. There are four of them in total, but only two are needed to scram the reactor. Such as this pair.”

“And the guy didn’t realize what he’d done?”

“No. But nothing else was found to be wrong, and this fellow was the only one in the area. He recalls nudging into something, and it appears he heard the activation of EmShut. That was a problem.”

Paul shook his head in disbelief, repeating the language of the official report: “The reactor scram was due to the impact of a bag of refuse upon plant instrumentation.”

“Oh, nuke plants are very sensitive,” Langford said wearily. “They are quite easy to shut down. It's keeping them up and running that's difficult.”


Anton strolled among the summer crowd, reading the cardboard signs held up for inspection, as all around him his fellow Muscovites bartered for apartments. He had already passed the permanent billboards, and out of the corner of his eye Anton had spotted the slip of blue paper. He soon returned, making a show of reading the numerous ads. The blue card was for a one-room apartment at a suburban address. Anton smiled. Message received.

The drop had gone without incident. As usual, he hadn’t provided much information, but he was doing the best he could: “C393-275 requested to revisit military storage site in Utah. . . . . . Blue Raven will soon complete a long training course. . .”


Vitaly closed the binder and rubbed his eyes. The NRC exam for the reactor operator’s license was fast approaching, and he would soon have to prove himself in the simulator, pass a written exam, and answer questions during a walk through the plant with an NRC inspector. As if preparing for that wasn’t enough, there were the sabotage plans for Dmitri. But for now, his concentration was at a low ebb. Time for a walk.

Vitaly slipped on his running shoes and stepped out on the tiny front porch. The neighborhood was alive: down the hill, near the entrance to the cul-de-sac, little children were playing kickball, while closer by, older kids stood astride their bikes beneath an unlit street lamp. He noticed one was Ken Prager’s son, whom he’d played volleyball with a few weeks before at a backyard party. Vitaly gave the boy a nod as he strolled past, trying to relax. He thought back to summer evenings in New York, playing in front of the apartment. There was Alexi, and Yuri, and the two American kids from across the street. Where had they all gone? He knew Yuri was in the Army, and Alexi had gone north to drill for oil. But Tommy and Matt? –- he couldn’t even recall their last names. It did not matter. Such playmates were best left as a pleasant memory from a time before he understood the huge gulf that separated their world from his.

At the bottom of the hill, Vitaly moved onto the shoulder of the old country lane that skirted the southern edge of South Bend. His knee was stiff. That's what he got for not exercising more. As he strolled past the cornfield that climbed the incline behind his house, his thoughts returned to work and the day’s lesson: Public Relations.

If a nuclear plant was in trouble, how could it be explained in simple terms to the public? This was the challenge the industry faced, and the solution was Emergency Action Levels. There were four of these. The first was the “Unusual Event”, which meant only that the plant needed to take extra precautions to avoid any trouble. Fairview itself had experienced several over the years when safety equipment had failed routine tests. An “Alert” was the second step up the ladder. It meant there was a serious problem, but it could be resolved without any effect on the public. Next came the “Site Area Emergency”. That was bad news. People living within a few miles of the plant might be asked to take shelter or evacuate, since a release of excess radiation was considered a possibility. Finally, there was the “General Emergency”. That was the worst. Evacuations might be extended to ten miles downwind.

Vitaly stopped. Take a break, John Donner. Relax! The piercing staccato of crickets filled the air as he thought of the long nights of study in college. When he'd been tired or frustrated, Yelena had always been there. But not here, now. He must do it alone. And survive.


End Post 13



“Has Hoosier Electric ever looked into solar power?” the mayor’s wife asked.


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