Episode 28


Awkwardly holding the copper tubing and duct tape in his burly arms, Gary opened the airlock door and stepped back into the reactor building. The beam of a flashlight caught him in the face, and Gary recognized the woman as she approached. Like his wife, she was a health physics technician.

“Where you going?” the HP asked.

“STurDI-1. Fix the turbine.” No time to talk.

“You better take one of these.” The woman held out a finger-sized tube. “Accident-range dosimeter. Goes to one R.”

Gary’s hands were full. “Stick it in my chest pocket.” He understood what the device was for: his other dosimeter couldn’t record such high values. “Are rad levels up?”

“Not yet,” the HP said as she clipped on the tube.

The mechanic motioned back toward the door. “My partner's right behind me.”

“Give him one, then.” The HP attached another to his pocket.

“Yah.” Gary started towards the stairs to the STurDI-1 room.

“We'll check on you as soon as we can!” the HP added.


Wendell flipped a switch. All equipment but the most essential was being turned off to lessen the load on the emergency diesel generator when it was finally started.

Nearby, Fleck was briefing Phil Guthrie. The NRC site resident inspector had just arrived. “…So Leeman thinks he's getting there. We’re waiting.”

Guthrie nodded. “Bad rad levels yet?”

“No, torus and drywell are about normal. Looks like the fuel's holding up.” Fleck ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. “Now, if we'd just get the diesel back.”


In the STurDI?1 room, Gary manhandled a piece of copper tubing into place across the gap separating the startup oil pump from the rest of the system. His flashlight lay nearby, pointed at his work. Kneeling, Gary saw beads of sweat drip onto the pump casing, and he wiped an oily hand across his forehead. Until then he hadn't noticed the room was hovering around one hundred degrees. He also realized he hadn’t put on a hard hat or glasses. No time for that now.

With a pipe wrench, Gary gave the tubing a twist, then looked at his handiwork, his heart pumping. Bend the pipe back. Get things more in line. He grabbed the free end of the slippery line and hammered it with the back of the wrench. Behind him, someone came through the door.

“Goddamn, oil is heavy shit,” Tama said as he set two buckets down with a thud, his face flushed. “What now?”

Gary glanced up. “Give me a hand. Then get the cover off the oil tank and start filling.” And we’ll get this turbine rolling.


Vitaly was only a mile from home when he pulled into a darkened parking lot along the edge of South Bend. Stripping off his leather jacket, he wormed his way into a bright green windbreaker and then grabbed a thermos bottle off the floor and poured a chunk of ice into his hand. He stuck the cube beneath his nose and pulled back onto the main road. It was time for John Donner to be sick again.

At the all night grocery, Vitaly tossed the half-melted ice cube onto the asphalt. Once inside, he cruised up and down several aisles until he located a stockboy refilling some shelves. “Cold medicine?” Vitaly asked, as if he could not breathe through his reddened nose.

The boy pointed. “Two aisles over. Down at the end.”

“Thanks.” Vitaly coughed. A short time later he approached the checkout lanes balancing cough syrup, tissues, two cans of soup, and a half?gallon glass jar of orange juice. There was a young woman on duty at the register reading one of the tabloids as Vitaly began dumping his purchases onto the conveyor belt. The bottle of juice was slick with condensation. There was a crash, and a puddle of orange fluid began spreading across the floor. “Oh, shit.” Vitaly looked over at the girl. “Sorry.” He wiped his nose.

“That’s okay.” The young woman tried to smile. She picked up the phone. “Kevin to the front.” Her voice boomed through the store. “Bring a mop.”


Paul came to a halt at the traffic light, his foot tapping to the music. He wasn't finding it hard to stay awake ?? after all, he had an appointment to identify a drug smuggler for the FBI. Would he get to watch the arrest itself, he wondered? Or point out Donner in a lineup? Whatever happened, it would be an interesting morning.


“One more,” the electrician said to Leeman, who was hovering behind the kneeling man and shining his light into the dark interior of the cabinet. The electrician moved a wire, tightened a screw, then looked back. “That's it.”


“Vessel level is minus twenty-two,” the assistant operator reported.

“Final check,” Fleck announced, as everyone grew silent. Alongside him, perched on the operators’ table, Cervantes had the phone pressed to his ear while his free hand nervously twirled a pen. The rest of the growing staff, along with Phil Guthrie, stood a few paces back “We got the diesel bus cleared?” Fleck asked, looking at Wendell.

“Yes. Ready,” Wendell said. Jesus, let it work.

“Control!” the radio bellowed.

Wendell stiffened. It was Leeman.

Fleck lifted the mike. “Control. Go ahead, Karl.”

“We're ready to go,” Leeman said.

“Roger.” Fleck briefly scanned the room. “Okay. Proceed with manual start.”


“Stay here,” Leeman said to the electrician in the back of the panel. “Watch them master relays.” He moved around to the front, alongside the turbine building operator, then peered over at the massive machine a few feet away. “Start it,” Leeman ordered.


An alarm cut through the control room. From his spot at the diesel controls, Wendell looked up at the blinking rectangle: #1 DIESEL START.

“Do it, damn it, do it ....” the assistant operator said through clenched teeth. The short, chunky figure beside Wendell had his eyes fixed on the diesel’s R.P.M. gage.

Wendell, too, stared at the meter, trying to will the huge engine into operation. Come on!

The thick black needle shuddered.


“Got it! R.P.M.s rising!” the assistant operator said.

Wendell watched the needle climb. There was a red line at 900. Once the diesel engine reached that speed, the generator could begin to produce electricity. Passing 400, the needle began to slow its ascent. Too early....

“Problem!” the assistant operator announced.

Jesus, come on! Wendell ordered. But the needle came to a stop well short of the red line.

“No good! We only got to idle speed.”

Wendell closed his eyes. It can’t stay like this. It can’t.


The diesel generator rumbling behind him, Karl Leeman stared at the R.P.M. meter, then shook his head in disgust. Fingering the walkie-talkie, he headed for the door.


Steve listened on the phone as the diesel start was attempted. Encouragements could be heard ... and then curses. The plant manager grimaced.

“No good, Steve,” Cervantes finally reported. “Only got to idle.”

“Oh, God,” Steve whispered. Another failure! ... Why? ... Why? Never mind! Keep moving ahead.

“Leeman wants blueprints on the electronics.” Cervantes said.

“Okay. Hang on.” Steve cupped his hand over the receiver and spoke to Tarelli, who was just returning to his desk with Crutch Pegariek in tow. “Lou, get Leeman all the prints for the diesel logic.”

“I got it,” Crutch said, stepping away. Tarelli picked up his phone to listen.

“Okay, Ted. Lou’s on the line. What’s our status?”

“Level’s at ?25,” Cervantes began. His voice was steady, but to Steve it sounded like the operations supervisor was walking a tightrope, keeping his anger and trepidation in check. “Drywell temp's up around 283. Too damn hot. Torus temperature is still okay, considering we're blowing steam down there every few minutes. No high rads either, so the fuel’s holding up.”

“How about STurDI?” Steve asked.

“Still troubleshooting the controls on STurDI?2. No phones, and radios go dead in there. We got operators running messages. We’re checking with the mechanics at STurDI?1.”


“Are we prepping to vent the drywell?” Cervantes said. “Jacking open those valves takes thirty minutes. We’ll be hitting the temp limit by then.”

“The team is heading out,” Tarelli said.

Thirty minutes, Steve grimaced. If he could blow hot air out of the drywell this instant, he would. At least it wouldn’t contain fuel gas. But in thirty minutes, the gas would surely be there. By then, the fuel tubes would have cracked from their own heat, or perhaps from cool water returned to the vessel by STurDI. “Let me know when we’re ready to vent,” Steve said to Tarelli. “Unless we restore power and can cool down the drywell, we’ll have to proceed.” No matter what we release. Containment must stay together.

Steve finished with Cervantes and hung up. If we’d gotten somebody on the drywell valves right away, we could be venting clean air right now. He massaged his aching hand. God, did we send folks to the wrong places? Did I miss something? … No. We were trying to get water back in the vessel. That had to be the top priority. But now his plant was backed into a corner, with a core that would soon start crumbling, and the release of a strong cloud of radioactivity also a possibility. He had always prided himself on finding solutions – on leading people towards the best answer possible – but no path seemed likely to clean up this mess in time. The thought of failure was building in the back of his mind, but Steve fought it. His father had shown him the cost of giving in to despair: living in a fog of alcohol and self-pity while his family struggled to get by. Steve would never be like that. Something had to go right. Something.

The phone rang. It was Chambers, the offsite emergency manager. Steve brought him up to date.

“We ought to consider upgrading the evacuation,” Chambers said. “Things aren't getting any better.”

“You think clearing out five miles downwind, and sheltering to ten?”

“Yep. That's the next step up the ladder.”

Steve sighed. “Very well. I can't disagree.” He brushed his graying hair from his forehead. We're doing everything we can -- and it's not enough.



Time: 3:48 am.

Time from Start of Event: 57 minutes

Reactor Water Level (above Fuel): -22 inches

Kneeling at the front of the STurDI?1 turbine, Gary wound duct tape around a short piece of copper tubing at its connection to the oil system. Soaked in sweat, his clothes were smeared with grease and his black hair was a tousled mess. Nearby, Tama was removing the cover of the oil tank.

Gary caught something bright out of the corner of his eye, and he looked back into the beam of a flashlight.

“You guys need help?” The light dropped, revealing a tall, thin operator in a hardhat labeled BAKER.

“We're gettin' there,” Gary said as he worked on. “You'd just get in the way. How's the plant?”

“Level's down around the fuel.”

Crap. Gary didn't look up. “Tell Control we'll be ready in five minutes.” There was an edge to his voice.

“Five minutes, right!” The operator reached for his walkie-talkie, then stopped. “I forgot, it won't work down here.” He hurried out the door.

On top of the oil tank, Tama continued turning the cover bolts, his wrench slapping against the metal of the container. “Five minutes?” he said. “How we gonna get that pump anchored in five minutes? It's loose as hell.”

“We're gonna sit on it.”

“Will that do it?”

“We’ll give it a try,” Gary said. It can work. “We only gotta hold the thing down for thirty seconds to get the steam valve open. Then the shaft?driven pump takes over.”

“You think the motor can take it?” Tama said. “What if its bearings are shot?”

“We’ll find out.”


“Do a quick sweep for seal leakage,” Wendell said into the microphone, “then check again.”

“Roger. Zabowski out.”

Damn! Wendell set the mike aside. The operator had reported no progress at STurDI?2. The young supervisor stared at the instruments showing the condition of the reactor. The readings were only getting worse ?? but what could be done? Christ, there must be a way out of this. Must be. He felt a deep burn in his gut from the frustration. He wanted to lash out, to demand that something work. But that wouldn't help... Calm down. Think clearly. Wendell stepped back, and took a deep breath as he looked about the room. The staff had grown, and was working in small groups. Fleck was peering over the shoulder of those gathered around the diesel drawings, while Cervantes remained on the line with the emergency center.

“Control!” the radio blared.

Wendell responded. “Control.”

“This is Baker,” the breathless voice said. “ I just came from STurDI?1. They're piecing together an oil set?up. They think maybe five minutes.”

“Five minutes till we can try it?” Wendell said. It sounded too good to be true.

“That's what they said.”

Wendell looked at Cervantes and saw the operations supervisor was listening.

“We’ll be ready,” Wendell said. Let it work. Jesus, just let it work. He turned to the personnel spread across the room. “Listen up!”


Five miles. They'll be moving people out for five miles downwind. Shelter to ten. Steve looked at the county map on the wall, the wind direction marked on it with a blue arrow. Northwest to southeast. Right towards Brixton. His home was eight miles from the plant, just outside of town. Marie and the kids would soon be hearing sirens and getting shelter warnings. Of course, his wife already knew something was wrong. She would be okay, Steve reassured himself. She could handle it. Just check all the windows and hold tight.

In the bleached glow of the fluorescent lamps, the plant manager surveyed his increasing staff. Nearly thirty people were spread among the tables: digging through procedures, arguing over drawings, updating the rad maps, all with tension and fear lining their faces. Beneath a NO SMOKING, NO EATING sign, Phil Guthrie, fresh from the control room, was on the red phone with his NRC superiors. And just down the hall, Steve knew, the staging area was being set up. In a few minutes it would begin to control the movements of the in?plant teams. Overall, the emergency plans were working well. But the plant wasn't. If things kept going at this rate, they'd have to start thinking about cutting the staff down to a minimum. Just in case.

Tarelli had been on the phone. “Steve,” he said, as he stood to leave, “pick up the control room.”

Steve punched the button. “Yes, Ted.”

“Got a report from STurDI?1. We can try it in a couple of minutes.”

“Understood. Great.” Maybe this time.

“Your end okay?”

Cold water on hot fuel. Tarelli was now leaning in the doorway of the radio room. “Lou, how are we set for a release?”

“We've got one team at the site boundary,” Tarelli said as he returned to his phone, “and Langford is dispatching someone out to the yard. We've also got folks in the reactor building, and we were sending one down to look in on the STurDI rooms.”

“Any guess how much fuel we're gonna bust?” Cervantes asked. “The tips have been in the air for ten minutes.”

“Hard to say,” Tarelli replied, running a hand across his bare scalp. “Basically, my guess is it won't be too bad. Torus rads will tell us.” Steam from the vessel would travel through STurDI and then into the huge tank, carrying any fuel gas with it. “We’ll also keep checking to see if anything seeps into the hallway.”


End Post 28



Just behind him were several pipe supports, and he wiped his hands on his shirt and grabbed on.


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