Episode 27




     “I'll get the latest,” Wendell said, pulling open the glass door.

     The STA gave a distracted nod.  The red phone pressed to his ear, he was listening to the next question from the NRC officials in Bethesda.

     Wendell headed for the center panel, detouring around two men crouched over a drawing spread out on the floor.  The assistant operator had returned from the diesel and was working with another shift supervisor who had just arrived.  At the operator's table, Fleck was on the radio, while the chief operator and another reinforcement were beside the STurDI panel.

     The reactor level indicator now showed twelve inches of water remaining above the top of the core.  Twelve inches.  Wendell could hardly bring himself to believe it.  Jesus, we're almost uncovered.  He thought of Karen.  She had been going to bed when he'd left for work.  She probably doesn't even know.  The sirens would only be to five miles.  Their small house on the east edge of Brixton was nearly twice that distance from the plant.  If we could just get this under control, by the time she wakes up it’ll be over.

     “Got to be a way to get water in there,” Wendell heard the chief operator say, as he and his companion racked their brains.

     “Hey, wait a minute,” the newer man said.  “Remember when they cleaned out that old oil tank last month?”


     “They used a high pressure pump.  Diesel, wasn’t it?  I'll bet we still got it.  We could get some water in the vessel with that thing.”

     The chief operator's face brightened.  “Maybe...”  Then his features sagged.  “No.  That pump had an electric motor.  I hooked the damn thing up.” 

     There was pained silence.  Then, without warning, the chief operator swung around and kicked a metal wastebasket, the sound of the impact echoing across the room.  “How the FUCK could this much go wrong?” he yelled, his face growing red.  “Didn't fucking maintenance do their job!”   As abruptly as he had snapped, the tall, gangly man regained his composure.  He took a deep breath, then pulled out a handkerchief and mopped the sweat off his scalp. 

     Turning back to the panel, Wendell watched the level indicator jiggle and then slide down another fraction of an inch.  The water in the reactor vessel was boiling away at a high pressure and 550 degrees Fahrenheit.  Even if they pumped water in right now, they couldn’t prevent level from dropping below the top of the core.  Compared with the hot fluid in the reactor, any new water would be ice cold.  The sudden chill would collapse the steam bubbles holding vessel level as high as it was, and the fuel would briefly be uncovered.  But, Wendell reminded himself, those tubes of enriched uranium were built to take that punishment -- up to a point.  After a few minutes with their tips exposed, the finger-sized tubes would begin leaking --  first a radioactive gas, and then bits of melted uranium itself.  

     “What we at?” a terse, familiar voice said.

     Wendell looked over his shoulder as Ted Cervantes came up alongside, his brown eyes narrowed with intensity.  “We're plus twelve inches.  Maybe four or five minutes ‘til we start to uncover.  Have you been briefed?”

     “Just a little.  Do it quick.”


FIGURE 5  (again)





     “Ya got continuity?” Karl Leeman asked the man kneeling behind the panel in the darkened #1 diesel room.

     “Yeah, it's there.”  The electrician’s flashlight framed his face in shadows.

     Leeman’s bushy, graying eyebrows turning up at the corners as he frowned.  “So where’s the fool problem?”




Time:  3:37 am.

Time from Start of Event:  46 minutes

Reactor Water Level (above Fuel):  +7 inches


     Steve raced down the murky hallway and into the emergency center.  The low-ceilinged room was filled with an antiseptic glow from the fluorescent lights on each table.  The plant manager was glad to see Tarelli on the phone at his desk.  Nearby, Langford stood beside the in-plant maps conversing on a walkie-talkie, while two other staff members were retrieving drawings from a cabinet.

     Tarelli looked up as Steve approached.  His face was smudged by an unshaven beard.  “I got Cervantes in control.”

     Good.  He’s here.  Steve picked up the phone on his desk and punched in.  “Ted, this is Steve.  I just missed you up there.”

     “I know,” was Cervantes' sullen response.  “We're in deep shit.  Get as many people on STurDI-2 and the diesel as you can.”

     “We're on it.”

     “Level’s gonna hit top of fuel in a minute,” Cervantes said.  “Not many options ‘til something gets fixed.  What do you think about drywell temp?”

     “We have some time on that, don't we?”

     “Some. 280 now.  Slow rise.”

     “I don't want to do anything just yet,” Steve said.  No quick decision when I can avoid it.  “If we have to vent later, we will, but let's hold off.  We could get ourselves in worse trouble.” 

     “I agree, but don't cut it too close.  Takes a while to set up.  No power at the vent valves.”

     “Understood.  We'll get someone on it.” 

     Steve hung up.  Vent the drywell.  God, what a lousy option.  There hadn't been any release of radiation thus far, and if they vented now it wouldn't be too bad – the air in the drywell was still fairly clean.  But some radioactive gas would escape. A plant releasing any radiation in an emergency was an ugly scenario.  T.M.I. had brought that lesson home.  Yet, if they waited and things kept deteriorating, they would have gas from damaged fuel to contend with.  That would make any release much worse.  What were the alternatives?  If the drywell kept heating up, Steve knew, there wouldn't be any.  They had to keep the concrete shell surrounding the reactor vessel from falling apart.       Steve turned to Tarelli.  “Lou, give me status.  Plant condition and repairs.”

     “There’s an HP in the reactor building now, getting some quick readings,” Tarelli said, nodding towards Langford on the walkie-talkie.  “Nothing out of the ordinary yet.”  He pointed to the back of the room.  “I’ve got two guys looking at the diesel logic, and there’s a mechanic headed out to help Leeman and his electrician.  Another I&C is going to STurDI-2.  People are starting to come in.”

     “You aware we went to a General?” 

     “Cervantes told me.  Two mile evacuation, five mile shelter downwind.  By the way, winds are out of the northeast,” Tarelli said.  “Light.  We should have a team at the site boundary in a few minutes.”

     “Good,” Steve said.  “You're way ahead of me.”

     Tarelli shrugged.  “I'm afraid this thing is way ahead of both of us.”






     Using his flashlight to guide him, Gary hurtled up the four flights of stairs outside the STurDI-1 room, catching himself on the hand-railing when the oil on his boots caused him to slip.  He ran on into the turbine building and toward the diesel generator area.  Almost at his destination, a figure approached.  Lifting his flashlight, Gary caught a glimpse of Doug Tama's face.


     “Yah.”  Relieved to see his fellow mechanic, Gary began to explain between heavy breaths:   “Listen, I can get STurDI-1 back.  Where you going?”

     “Diesel.  I just got here.”

     “Help me first.”  Together they hurried on.

     “Plant sure is fucked up, as dark as it is,” Tama said.  “What's wrong with STurDI-1?” 

     “Oil line's busted.  We got the stuff to fix it in here.”  Gary put his access card in the reader beside the door to the #2 diesel.  Nothing happened.  He tried the door, but it wouldn't budge.  “Card readers don't work.  We need Ops to unlock it.”  Crap.

     “I think there’s somebody at the other diesel,” Tama said.  “Maybe they got keys.” 

     The two rushed to a nearby door and found it propped open.  Inside, emergency diesel generator #1 was a huge, hulking shadow.  There was light behind the control panel and Gary found two men examining circuits, with Leeman crouching over them.

     “Good, another body,” Leeman said, glancing up.

     “I got Tama with me too,” Gary said.  “I think we can fix STurDI-1.”

     Leeman cast a stern look at the mechanic.  “Then do it!”

     “I’ve gotta get in the other diesel room for parts.  It's locked.” 

     “I got a key,” the operator in front of Leeman said.  He stood.

     “I'll tell Control,” Leeman said.  “Git that turbine ready.”

     “God, yes, get it working,” the operator added, as he came out from behind the panel.  “Things are going to hell.”

     Gary caught a glint of fear in the man's eyes.  He began to feel it too, but pushed back the ugly mood.  I can fix it.


     “What do we need?” Tama asked as they stepped around the parts strewn about the floor of the #2 diesel room.  There was a single light overhead.

     “Tubing and tape,”  Gary said as he gathered up a few short pieces of copper piping and two rolls of duct tape.  “Need oil too.  There's a couple of five gallon buckets in here someplace.” Gary peered over at his fellow mechanic.  “I'm going back.  Find that oil and get it down there.”






     “What we at, Wendell?” Cervantes said.  He had perched on the table beside the radio.  An alarm began blaring and was cut off.

     “Just under an inch,” Wendell’s attention was focused on the wavering level indicator.  No boiling water reactor had ever been this far.  Christ, we're really gonna do it.  Uncover the fuel.   All his training, all those nights of study, and it had come to this.  He remembered how Karen would bring him snacks and kiss him as he reviewed for his exams.  And now?  Was her husband part of another T.M.I.?  Or worse? 

     Fleck came up alongside and studied the panel.  “God damn it,” he said. “Where's STurDI-2?  Where the fuck is the diesel?  We're running dry here.”

     “There’s a chance at STurDI-1,” Wendell offered.  Leeman had called in moments before to report that some mechanics thought they could fix the turbine-pump.

     “Better be damn quick,” Fleck said.  “Cold water’s gonna be tough on the core.”  Even before the fuel became hot enough to crack apart on its own, the sudden introduction of a cool fluid might cause damage.  It would be like dumping ice water in a hot glass.   Fleck leaned forward to get a closer look at the reactor level.  “Zero,” he announced in a loud, steady voice.  “Level is at zero.”






     Phyllis Broeder scrawled some notes as she listened to the sheriff on her headset.  He was at the civil defense office a few miles east of Brixton, and they were preparing to evacuate the area within two miles of Fairview Station.

     “That's it,” the sheriff said.  “Get the word out.  What's our patrol status?”

     “Four cars near the plant.  Fifth on the way.”

     “They got their radiation monitors?”

     Phyllis fingered the dosimeter and film badge clipped to her blouse.  “The car en route is delivering.  Barry and Don have also called in.  They're taking their own cars out there.”

     “Good.  Sheriff out.”

     Phyllis sat quietly, gathering herself.  The youthful grandmother had been with the county police for fifteen years, and she had taken many bad calls, but never anything like this.  For the first time, she herself was afraid.  The outside line rang and Phyllis looked across the squad room to be sure the detective on duty answered.  The calls hadn't stopped since the sirens had begun.

     It must be very bad if they’re evacuating, Phyllis reflected, trying not to shudder.  She thought of her husband, and her daughter and grandson.  They would all be headed out of town.  She had seen to that.  The evacuation didn't extend as far east as Brixton, but Phyllis wasn’t taking any chances.  Now all she could do was pray for her family's safety.  And her own.  She was in the center of town, eight miles from the plant, in a windowless basement.  During the drills, the Hoosier Electric trainer had said it was a good place to be in an emergency.  Phyllis could only hope he was right.






     Liz had been listening to the state police direct it’s officers towards Fairview Station, and when passing the exit for Brixton, she instinctively looked to the west, but all that was visible was a hazy glow from the lights of the town.  The plant was miles beyond that, she knew.  What had John Donner done?  Was it a plan out of Mission:  Impossible, or more like a terrorist bombing?  And what were the results?  Injuries?  Deaths?  The dispatcher on the radio was saying little except that no radiation had been released. 

     South Bend was thirty miles further north. She pressed harder on the gas. 






     Karl Leeman grimaced and dug a thin hand into his back as he pulled himself from his crouch behind the electrician. “Hey!” Leeman yelled to the operator working nearby, “gimme that radio!”

     The operator pulled the walkie-talkie from his belt and Leeman took it.  “Control!” he said.   “Leeman at the diesel.  Gettin’ close.  Thar's a trip signal, but I can bypass it.” 

     “How long?” the control room asked.  

     “Figure ten minutes.  Then we do a local start an’ give ya some power.”






     Beneath an emergency light, Carol Halvorsen began going through the crates pulled from the locker.  Unable to sleep after Gary had left, she had put on some gentle music and started to pick up in the kitchen.  Briefly, she’d thought about arranging things to pack, or working on a list of the items they needed to get done, but there was too much thinking involved.  They might have found their house, in a nice neighborhood in Brixton, and they were hoping to close the deal next week.  But what was happening this night?  She had never seen Gary in such a hurry.  The next call had answered none of her questions.  There was only a recorded message, ordering her to report.

     Arriving at the staging area, Carol had tried asking about her husband, but the few workers present had not seen him.  Shoot.  Information about the plant was lacking as well.  It was dark everywhere, which she knew was a terrible sign, but beyond that she could only hazard a guess.  Then she had run into Marty, her driver, and they had each thrown on a set of anti-c's over their clothes before he left to get the truck while she checked the supplies.  It’s real this time, Carol kept telling herself, wishing it wasn’t true and trying to concentrate on her work.  This is no drill. 






     The phone at Steve's desk buzzed twice. “Steve Borden.”

     “Good, you're there.”  Steve recognized the voice of Bill Chambers, the offsite emergency manager, at corporate headquarters in South Bend.  

     “I just got in,” Chambers said.  “How bad is it?”

     “It’s serious,” Steve said, his stomach curled tight.  “We lost offsite power and our good diesel, then STurDI-1 and STurDI-2.  The water over the core is boiling off and we can't replace it.”

     “Oh, Lord.  That explains the General Emergency.  Any rad releases?”

     “No.  The vessel sealed off when we lost power.”


     “For the moment.  But the fuel is going to split open in a few minutes from the heat, or before that if we put water back in.  The gas from those cracked tubes will get blown down to the torus, and a tank that big always has a few air leaks around the seams.  So hot stuff could bleed on into the reactor building.

     “How about it getting outside?”

     “The building is closed off,” Steve said.  “No ventilation.  But it’s not airtight, and there’s no power for the ARAFS filters.  So no guarantees.”

     “Got it.  Anything else?”

     “Drywell temperature,” Steve said.  “It’s getting too hot in there.  That’ll make the whole structure unstable.  Either we restore power to the cooling system, or we vent in about thirty minutes.  That might include fuel gas from the torus.” 

     There was a pause, and Chambers sighed.  “Steve, you know if this keeps going much longer, we may have to upgrade on protective action.  If you really do release some high rads, clearing out two miles may not be enough.”


     Steve finished with Chambers and hung up.  Something's got to give.  Something.  He glanced around as he composed himself, spying Tarelli just outside the small radio room, working with Langford to dispatch the new personnel who were just arriving.

     The phone rang again.  It was Cervantes.  “Leeman thinks he’ll have the diesel soon.”

     “Great!”  Karl, you old bastard, turn this thing around.

     “We need to talk strategy,” Cervantes went on.  “We don’t know how much the diesel can handle.  But I can’t see an option except blowdown and flood up with VEPI.” 

     “Understood.” Steve said.  It would be a big step – but there was no other way to re-fill the vessel quickly and they had to get the core cooled down as soon as possible.

     “We’ll probably crack some fuel too.”

     “Right.”  Just what I told Chambers.  Fuel gas into the torus, and maybe further.  We’ll need to filter the building air if we can.  “You think we should get ARAFS running first, before the VEPI pumps?”

     “Worth the risk.  Doesn’t take much juice.” 

  “Agreed.  ARAFS, then VEPI.”  And, please God, let it work…  “What else?”

     “Drywell’s warm, but I’d worry more about the torus overheating.  We’ll be dumping a lot of steam in that tank to get pressure down so VEPI can inject.”  Keeping the torus cool was crucial, so that it could absorb more steam if that became necessary.

     “You’re right – run torus cooling right away.  We can wait a bit before going after drywell temperature.  I don’t want to push that  diesel too hard.” 

     “We’ll be ready when Karl is,” Cervantes said.  “Maybe we'll get lucky.  Not crack the fuel tips.”

     Steve closed his eyes.  Just maybe...  God, let it work.





End Post 27





“Now, if we’d just get the diesel back.”



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