Episode 30


“Minus 10!” the assistant operator said.

“Torus temperature?” Fleck asked.

“140. Slowly rising.”

“Not too bad,” Fleck said. The blond, burly supervisor stood back from the panels: his arms crossed, his features more relaxed. He had resumed chewing his gum.

“Torus rad levels still going up,” the third operator reported. “Starting to see it in the drywell too.”

Wendell remained beside the radio, both elated and disappointed. We didn’t come through clean. There was damaged fuel. Still, the excess radioactivity remained within primary containment. That could be dealt with later. Soon, either the diesel generator or the offsite power lines would be repaired, and the plant could be returned to a stable condition. With any luck, drywell air temperature would stay below 300 degrees until they again had power for the cooling system.

“Minus five!”

“STurDI running good,” the chief operator said. “Rated flow.” He looked up from the controls, a smile beneath his bushy mustache.

“Here we go!” the assistant operator said. The room grew quiet. “Minus one! .... ZERO! Level is passing the top of active fuel. Still rising!”


On one knee at the oil tank, Gary urgently nudged Tama with his flashlight. He pointed to the thin streams of oil, then swung around to grab a roll of duct tape. Turning back, he found the leak had increased, and Tama was using one hand to cover the spray of warm oil and the other to prevent the finger?sized joint from vibrating completely apart.

God damn! Gary had a sinking feeling as he slid on his knees to get closer. A hand landed on his shoulder, and, startled, Gary turned to see the operator's concerned face. “Can we bypass it?” Gary yelled, but the man couldn't hear over the rumble of the turbine, and he leaned in closer. “Bypass! Bypass!” Gary screamed. The operator nodded and hurriedly began tracing the maze of piping, trying to find a way to divert the oil flow around the leak. Without continued oil pressure, the valve directing steam into the turbine would close.

Turning back to the source of the crisis, Gary pulled a strip of tape and signaled Tama to let go of the leak. The hand came off, and Gary was sprayed with warm, fragrant oil as he attempted to wrap the joint. Shit! He blinked his eyes and struggled to fix the coupling. He couldn't get the tape on tight enough ?? it wouldn't stick ?? and oil continued to stream out. It was only getting worse. A few inches away Tama was still clamping down on the vibrating pipe. Gary tried again to wrap more tape around the leaking joint. Don't let it split apart! Wrap it tight and let it stick to itself! The spray increased and the oily, shaking pipe began to slip around in Tama's hands. Hold it! Hang on! Suddenly, the line gave a hard shudder, and the two mechanics were showered by a frantic burst of oil as the end of the pipe shook itself loose of the coupling. Above them, there was a puff of steam and the noise level began to drop. The steam inlet valve was going closed. The STurDI?1 turbine was shutting down.


“Level at plus 8.”

An alarm sounded, and above the STurDI panel an annunciator began to flash. The chief operator looked up from the controls: “STurDI?1 low oil pressure!”

Oh, Christ. Wendell took a step closer.

“Oil pressure dropping!” the chief operator said as Fleck rushed up beside him. In the back of the room, all conversation ceased.

“Steam inlet valve moving,” Fleck announced.

“She's dying!” the chief operator said. “R. P. M.'s dropping! Flow rate dropping!...”

Jesus. Wendell watched in horror, Cervantes now standing alongside. There was nothing that could be done.

“Come on!” the chief operator said, “hold up!”

Wendell watched the valve’s indicator. A green light appeared. He winced.

“Inlet valve closed,” Fleck said. “STurDI?1's gone.”

“Damn!” the chief operator said. “God damn! God damn!” His face beet?red, he pushed away from the control panel. A book of procedures lay nearby and he flung it towards the bare side wall, the binder slamming against the plaster surface. “Fucking piece of shit!” There was tense silence as he stared down at the floor, his lean body trembling in anger.

“What's level?” Cervantes finally said.

The assistant operator turned back to the center panel. “We’re at 10 inches.”

Cervantes briefly spoke into the phone and hung up. “All right.” He voiced the words as a command. “We bought ourselves some time to get power back. That's a start.” He looked to the chief operator, whose gaze was still fixed on the floor. “Larry, you're relieved. Take ten minutes.”

The man smacked his palm against a leg and moved toward the door.

“Arnie, take over,” Cervantes said to the third operator.

Wendell turned to watch the chief operator stalk out of the control room. The belief that the crisis was ending had drained away. But something had been done. Ten inches over the fuel. We've got a little time now. Not much, but a little.


In the emergency center, Steve and Tarelli listened over the phone to STurDI’s demise. Cervantes had set the receiver down and stepped away.

“They're losing it,” Tarelli said.

Not now. God, not now! Steve heard Darrel Fleck report the steam inlet valve was shut. The plant manager’s head sagged. Not now. There was cursing in the background.

Cervantes came on the line. “We lost STurDI?1. I'll get back.” He hung up.

“Bad deal,” Tarelli said. He turned to Steve. “What was the last level you heard?”

“Plus ten, I think.”

“Strange, him cutting us off. Not like Ted.”

“I think he wanted to take care of his people,” Steve said softly, as he struggled to absorb the latest blow. He looked up to find all eyes in the emergency center fixed on him. Straighten up. Command.


Time: 3:58 a.m.

Time From Start of Event: 67 minutes

Reactor Level (above Fuel): +10 inches

Torus Radiation: 100X normal (Damaged Fuel)

Radiation Release to Environment: None

Evacuation Orders: Ten Miles Downwind

As the shock of losing STurDI?1 began to wear off, Wendell moved alongside the assistant operator at the center panel. Temperature and pressure in the reactor vessel had fallen, and water level was holding at ten inches above the top of the fuel. It'll go up a bit more, then turn. As heat from the fuel seeped into the new, cool water, the liquid would expand. But soon enough it would begin to boil, and level would start to drop once again.

“Control!” the radio speaker said.

Wendell picked up the mike. “Control.”

“This is Baker!” The operator was gasping for breath: “ We lost STurDI?1! ... A main oil line ripped off. ... It's a mess!”

Wendell glanced at Cervantes and Fleck to ensure they were listening. “Can we bypass it? Or do a quick fix??”

“I don’t think so. But I’ll go back down.”


Joel Wermager sat in his patrol car beside Brixton’s main intersection, re-reading the emergency instructions. It had been three-quarters of an hour since the first order to take shelter had come out of Fairview Station and twenty minutes since the first evacuations around the plant had been announced. Traffic, which had been non?existent, was beginning to appear. Families now passed by, the driver hunched over, the other parent speaking to the sleepy children in the back seat. There were also older couples -- the husband at the wheel, the wife seated stiffly beside him -- and other combinations of frightened men, women and children. Many showed their anxiety by racing through the light, but Joel allowed them the extra speed. It was understandable. He fingered the thin tube clipped to his pocket, then held it up again to the light. The needle still rested on zero.

Suddenly there was a new sound, a whine that crescendoed to a bellowing pitch. The siren from the fire department. Joel listened. The alarm was not rising and falling, as it would for a fire. It stayed high and piercing. Oh no....

“All units,” the radio broke in. “10?33. 10?33 IN BRIXTON! Civil Defense has called for evacuation of town. Everything is being cleared out for ten miles downwind of Fairview Station. 10?45, acknowledge with location. Out.”

Joel picked up the microphone. God help us.


Maybe it’s another Chernobyl, Liz thought when she heard a police dispatcher announce the larger evacuation. She thought of the pictures of the smoldering Russian complex. Many workers had died there. Was that happening at Fairview? Was she safe, speeding by a few miles to the east? On the radio, the police were firing back questions, wanting to know more. But there seemed to be precious little to tell.

South Bend was not far, and Liz was on schedule to meet Kreveski on the southern edge of town. Where was Donner now? Paul Hendricks had said the operator was ill at the end of his shift, but that could have been a ploy. Assuming he was finished with the sabotage, what came next? There was no precedent for this type of Soviet operation in the U.S. Was it a suicide mission? Was he supposed to run? Or was Donner just to lie low, playing the innocent?

A Soviet operation. The implications were enormous. They would need to keep this quiet. Washington would want time to deal with the event. But Liz had her own part of the puzzle to deal with. John Donner must be brought in. There was still time to find him. Unless it really was a suicide mission, Donner was either on the move or playing dumb. In either case, he wouldn't be expecting anyone to look for him so soon. We've got surprise on our side. Liz hoped that would be enough.


The emergency center was alive with activity as the staff searched for new solutions in the wake of STurDI-1's failure. The damaged fuel was one concern. Meanwhile, drywell air temperature was continuing its rise toward the 300 degree limit. The enclosed atmosphere was now much more radioactive as well.

Langford came out of the radio room and caught Steve’s and Tarelli’s attention. “Readings are increasing in the reactor building first floor hallway. 200 m.r. They believe it may be going airborne.” The supervisor ducked out of site once more.

“Sounds like we’re getting gas out of torus,” Tarelli said as he stepped away.

Steve grimaced. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but if radioactive air was indeed leaking out of the huge tank into the hallways of the reactor building, it would complicate every repair the plant tried to make. And it meant the only thing left between the gas and the outside world were the walls of the reactor building itself.

The phone rang. It was Cervantes. His tone was sour. “We got to plus ten, then STurDI’s oil system gave way. No quick fix.”

“Understood.” Steve had already assumed the worst. “We’ve just gone airborne on the first floor,” he said.

“Shit. Didn’t get away with it.”

“We bought ourselves some time, at least. Anything from STurDI?2 or the diesel?”

“Nothing new.”

Finished, Steve hung up. He squeezed the stub of his thumb as he tried to think differently, to find a new way of approaching the crisis, a solution that would get his plant back on the road to recovery. But there was nothing. Just failure after failure. A weight growing heavier. How much longer? How much more before things turn around? He curled his aching hand into a fist. There must be a way.


In the ominous quiet of the STurDI?1 room, Gary and his partner wiped themselves down with a drop cloth. The coarse material did little more than skim off the thickest layers of the oily fluid that had drenched both men and filled the air with its scent.

“Shit!” Tama said. “We had it running.”

“Yah,” Gary sighed. “It was pumping.” He kicked at the greasy floor. “But god damn, if I’d just seen that other bend! We could've fixed it, too!”

“It's a fucking maze of piping, Gary. It’s dark ?? all we had was flashlights. We tried.”

“I should have seen it!” Gary repeated. Shit! He cleared more oil from his eyes.

A light appeared in the doorway, and a short, chunky man with a clicking meter stepped inside. Gary recognized the health physics technician. “This thing been running?” the HP asked as he moved closer, using his flashlight to observe the meter.

“Yeah, it rolled for a minute.”

“Well, something's screwed up. You're over 4 R. background in here.”

Gary was caught off guard. Four Rems an hour? STurDI never gets that bad.

The HP looked up from his meter. “Unless you got something to do quick, we’re out of here. Too high.”


Steve stared at the plant maps tracking the flow of radioactive gas through the hallways of the reactor building. Workers now needed to wear anti?c's and masks, and he knew getting them dressed would take up precious time.

Tarelli returned from the radio room, “HP in the yard just picked up something. Airborne.”

Steve's heart sank. God, no. A release. The last barrier, the reactor building, had been breached.

“Five milli-rem so far,” Tarelli continued. He pointed over his shoulder. “Southeast corner. We'll have more in a sec.” He stepped back out of sight.

Just let the plume be small. Please, just let it be small. But no matter what the size of the release, Steve knew, it was a disaster. An uncontrolled cloud of radioactive gas was now outside. His plant had failed. Somehow. Some way. Despite all the good people and all the expensive equipment.

Tarelli returned, along with Langford. “We've got a 40 milli-rem plume in the yard. Still increasing.”

“Let's hope it levels off quick,” Steve said.

“Hard to say. We’re at a thousand Rem per hour in the torus. Now there’s some oozing out. First floor's around 400 milli-rem. Obviously, there’s a further pathway out of the building.”

“Where's our people?” Steve asked. Limit their dose.

“We have an HP in a mask performing a brief survey,” Langford said, “and we’re removing the crews from STurDI?1 and 2. There’s a team on the third floor setting up the drywell vent, and we’ll be monitoring that. The diesel and control room should not be affected.” He looked around the room. “Levels here should also stay low.”

Steve nodded. “How about off site?”

“The truck at the site boundary is reporting background levels. The second truck is traveling to a mile downwind. We’re ready.” Langford and Tarelli returned to the radio room.

We must track that cloud. No questions on that when we're done. Steve stared down at his desk. God, how did we get this far? It was T.M.I. all over again. And right after Chernobyl.….

The phone buzzed. Bill Chambers was calling from South Bend. “Steve, you should know we recommended evacuation to five miles, but the county C.D. director upped it. He’s clearing things out for ten miles downwind.”

Ten miles! “That's a hell of an accident, Bill.” Steve glanced at the county map and its arrow for wind direction. “Understand, you’re talking about clearing out Brixton.”

“Yeah, the director wasn't happy, but he said things seemed out of control at your place. He didn't figure he had much choice.”

Steve soon placed the phone back on its cradle, and looked again at the map of Potowatomie County. There was now an orange star, labeled “40 m.r.,” at the plant's location. The outdoor dose number was small ?? at least for the moment -- but it was a release. And the radioactive plume was going to keep moving with the wind. Toward Brixton.




End Post 30



“It’s coming,” Carol said. She grabbed the mike.


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