FIGURE A (Map)
Joel cruised the residential street, briefly adding his own siren to the fire station’s. He made the announcement again:
“Attention! There is a problem at the Fairview Nuclear Plant. Brixton is being evacuated. Tune to your radio for details.”
It had been only fifteen minutes, and much of Brixton was still waking up to the news, lights flicking on as the squad car passed by. With a phone call, Joel had made sure his wife had a head start. The young policeman was about to accelerate when a figure in sweat pants and a torn T-shirt flagged him down.
“Has the nuke plant blown up? We gettin’ fallout?” The man was unshaven, his hair a tangled mess.
“Sir, I can't tell you much. There's a problem at the nuclear plant and civil defense wants the town evacuated.”
“Those fuckers out there finally did it! What happened?”
“I don't know,” Joel said. Keep it calm. Keep it simple. “We've just been told to evacuate. If you need somewhere to go, they're opening up
“The hell with that! I'm driving east ‘til I hit
“Fine, sir. Be careful.” Joel tapped on the gas before the man had a chance to reply. It's just gonna get worse.
Steve waited. It was up to Leeman now. If anyone could jury?rig a solution, it was him. Soon Karl, soon.
Tarelli appeared. “Steve, the guys working the drywell vent think they can crank the valve in another five minutes.”
Steve frowned. “Understood.” It was an option – but not the one he wanted. “If we get the diesel back, we’ll start the cooling system. Otherwise, we vent. We can’t wait for offsite power. Too close to 300, and I won’t risk the drywell.” It must stay intact. “If we do vent,” Steve sighed, “what will the rads be like?”
Tarelli frowned. “Ballpark, we think the gas would be around 75 Rem an hour.”
God. 75 Rems. Steve knew the situation was bad, but to hear the numbers… It would be a huge release, thousands of times larger than the cloud the trucks were chasing. It could pose a genuine hazard.
“At least we can blow it through ARAFS,” Tarelli said, “and keep the iodine out of the food chain.”
“I suppose that’s some consolation. It’s better than having the drywell split open.”
Tarelli’s expression brightened. “But if Karl’s right about the diesel...”
FIGURE D (radiation)
In the cabinet behind diesel generator #1, the instrument technician made the connections, with Leeman guiding the work. The room was quiet, save for the sound of shallow breathing.
“One more, right?” the tech said, not taking his eyes off the maze of wires. Sweat dripped across his jaw.
“Yessir.” Leeman checked the blueprint. “F?9. That’ll do it.”
...then cycle the chiller valve... At the dimly-lit control panel, Wendell went over the steps needed to start the drywell cooling system. From there, he would slide over a few feet, and when the order came to blow down the reactor vessel, he would open the pressure relief valves. He didn’t understand fully why they weren’t using the control rod pump instead to buy precious minutes, but he could guess some of the reasons – and there wasn’t time to worry about it.
Wendell looked back at the radio. Make it run, Karl.
Fleck picked up the mike. “Control. Go ahead.”
“We're fixin’ to start this son-of-a-bitch. You set?”
“Hang on.” The shift supervisor surveyed the room. Wendell and three operators stood at the control panels, while Cervantes remained perched nearby, the phone on his shoulder. More staff members were in the back of the room. Fleck looked hard at the assistant operator in front of the diesel controls. “You ready?”
“Drywell cooling?” Fleck looked toward Wendell.
Wendell met his partner's gaze. “Ready.”
Once the diesel was running, the reactor building’s air filters would be the first equipment put in operation. “ARAFS?” Fleck asked the extra operator.
A few feet closer, the chief operator stood at the VEPI controls. If all went well, the pumps would soon be re-filling the vessel. “VEPI?”
“Let's do it.”
Fleck turned to Cervantes, and the operations supervisor nodded grimly. “It’s up to Karl.”
Cervantes’ voice came through loud and clear over the phone. “Here we go, Steve.”
Steve looked at Tarelli, who was listening in, and his second-in-command held up crossed fingers. “Attention!” the plant manager announced to the busy room. “We're about to try the diesel!” The staff fell silent.
Steve waited. On the other end of the line, the control room was quiet.
God, it's got to work. It's got to.
Karl Leeman took his spot at the control panel of the diesel generator, an operator beside him. The three other men in the room surrounded the massive engine, training their flashlights on dials and meters.
“Y’all set?” Leeman yelled. The replies were immediate. Leeman turned to the operator at the panel. “Local start. Go.”
The tense quiet of the control room was broken by an alarm and a flashing light.
“Diesel start!” the assistant operator said. “R.P.M.s coming up!”
Come on! This time! Wendell demanded. The engine should only need a few seconds to reach full speed.
“R.P.M.s at rated!” the assistant operator said. A second alarm began to blink. “On the bus! Diesel is on the bus!” The emergency generator was now ready to provide power to the plant. The operator gave a control handle a firm turn. “Diesel cooling pump on! ... No problems!” He punched a button and the alarm horns stopped. A sharp silence returned; all eyes still fixed on the diesel controls.
Jesus, it's working. We're gonna do it! Wendell's hands poised above the controls for drywell cooling.
“Still looks good!” the assistant operator said. “ R.P.M.s normal. Voltage normal.” He glanced back at Fleck. “It's running fine.”
Fleck nodded. He looked at Wendell. “Drywell cooling on.”
NOW! “Drywell cooling on!” Wendell repeated, as he turned the switches and watched the lights above change color. “Inlet valve .... going open. Cooling pump on! ....” He saw a meter swerve. “We've got flow! System running .... flow normal.” He flipped more controls. “Fan number 1... on. ... Fan number 2 ... on.” And that's it. Wendell looked over his shoulder at Fleck. “Drywell cooling in service.”
Wendell’s partner crossed his arms, and then let out a deep breath. “Okay, let's hold steady till we hear back from Leeman.”
More nervous quiet. Cervantes, still on the phone with the emergency center, paced the two steps the cord would allow.
Wendell checked drywell cooling. No problems. Cold water was now racing through pipes within the huge shell, while fans circulated its hot air over and around them.
Fleck grabbed the microphone.
“So fer, looks normal,” Leeman drawled. “T’ain’t much of a load, though.”
“Roger. Hang on a second.” Fleck turned to Cervantes. “We'll get ARAFS going, then have him check again.”
Fleck's eye fell on the panels at the far right. “Okay, start ARAFS.”
“Starting ARAFS!” the operator said. “Got the fan! .... Got the heaters .... Air flow increasing ... More .... More ....... Normal flow!”
Fleck lifted the mike. “Karl, we’re running ARAFS now. Check everything again.”
The tense atmosphere in the control room continued. “How we doing on drawing a vacuum?” Fleck asked.
“No negative pressure yet,” the operator reported. With the ARAFS fans sucking air from its rooms and hallways, the reactor building atmosphere would soon drop to a lower pressure than the world outside, which meant any gap in the outer walls would be filled by harmless outside air rushing in. The ARAFS filters would then be the sole path for any escaped fuel gas to leave the building.
“Okay so far,” Cervantes murmured into the phone.
Wendell moved over to the center panel. The next step…blowdown. It’s got to work. Got to. Two VEPI pumps would be started, and then Wendell would open all the pressure relief valves, allowing the remaining steam and water in the reactor vessel to roar down into the torus. Vessel pressure would plummet from the current 950 pounds per square inch. At 500 p.s.i. a valve would open, connecting the VEPI pumps to the reactor. Pressure would continue to fall until, at 250 p.s.i., the two pumps could finally force water into the huge steel capsule. By then, there would be nothing but a little steam surrounding the core. If water wasn’t quickly pumped in, the fuel would begin to melt. Jesus, it’s got to work.
“Control! Leeman! Second time, all readin’s good. Do what’cha gotta do, boys.”
“Hang tight right there,” Fleck said. He turned to Cervantes: “We’ll wait a couple of minutes and let ARAFS get a good negative pressure. Then start VEPI and do a final check.”
Wendell stared at the controls for the P.R.V.s. Almost there.
Time: 4:20 am
Time from Start of Event: 89 minutes
Reactor Water Level (above Fuel): + 13 inches
In the emergency center, the staff worked in whispers. Steve pressed the phone hard against his ear, trying to make out every word said in the control room. He fought any elation when the diesel first came on line. Good news, but still a ways to go. Yet, no matter what lay ahead, cooling the drywell air was removing a heavy burden from him. The thought of venting a horrifying cloud into the atmosphere was receding with each moment. He would have made the decision if he'd had to, but ...Thank God.
And now came the blowdown. It was an all-or-nothing call. If something went wrong, they would have a crumbling core, and very soon, a pool of deadly, molten slop at the bottom of the vessel. How could they pump water through such a mess to cool it down? How could they be sure there was no ongoing nuclear reaction, no debris so hot with atomic fire that it would eat its way right through the vessel? But the alternative to a blowdown was to wait for offsite power. Soon, the fuel would be uncovered again, and the tips of the damaged bundles would grow white hot a second time. When it was finally dowsed again with cold water, the core might then shatter like glass. Would the transmission lines be fixed in time to prevent such a catastrophe? And how stable would the connection be? Too many questions. It was time to refill the vessel. Now.
“ARAFS is on,” Cervantes reported. “Should have a solid vacuum soon. Then we go.”
Steve’s grip on the phone tightened. “Understood. Good luck.”
“Drywell temperature is creeping down,” Wendell said, checking the meter. The hush in the darkened control room had only been broken for such updates, the crew and the onlookers behind waiting while the ARAFS fans drew more air out of the reactor building.
The room grew brighter. Wendell blinked.
“That's better,” Fleck said. A bank of lights had been plugged into the diesel generator circuit.
After his eyes had adjusted, Wendell stole a look at Darrel Fleck. The tall, heavy-set shift supervisor, his sweaty blond hair plastered against his forehead, appeared in control, but exhausted. Wendell could feel his own damp shirt clinging to his back and he reached around and pulled it free. How long have we been at this? By his watch he saw it was 4:20. Eighty minutes, maybe ninety. An eternity ago, Karen had helped him make his lunch and then he had left for a quiet shift at Fairview Station. When he had arrived, the plant was running, with no major problems. Then a power line had gone down a few miles away. And then another ... Now Brixton, and Karen, were being evacuated. Jesus…
“Pressure in the building is still falling,” the operator at the ARAFS panel reported. “We’re starting to pull a vacuum.”
“One more test for the diesel,” Fleck said. He looked toward Cervantes, then gave the order: “VEPI in idle.”
The chief operator turned a black handle. “Starting VEPI pump #1! .... Start is successful... idle flow confirmed.” He repeated the sequence for the second pump.
Over the radio, Fleck asked the operator stationed outside the diesel room to check with Leeman on how the machine was handling the increased burden. He then trained his eyes on the assistant operator. “How's it look from here?”
“Fine. It took the load okay. No problems.”
“Good.” Fleck motioned to the center panel. “Give Wendell a hand.”
Wendell stood by as the assistant operator shifted over. The short, chunky man, his brown mane more unkempt than usual, had been a quiet and solid presence.
“I'll pop the P.R.V.s, then cover pressure,” Wendell said.
The operator nodded. “I'll take level. Watch VEPI do its thing.” Behind his glasses, his eyes were lit with expectation.
Wendell turned to the four buttons, a green light above each. When given the order, he would open the pressure relief valves, and the steam and water remaining in the reactor vessel would escape into the torus. After that, it was up to VEPI. Many times in the simulator he had performed the same task, never believing it would become a real necessity. No N.E.B. reactor had ever been forced to do it.
“Vacuum improving. Nearing required.”
Soon now. Soon. Action was always better than waiting, but the feeling in Wendell’s gut was not anticipation. There was no reason to think anything else would go wrong -- but so many things had broken. Why not one more?
End Post 33
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
“We’re going for blowdown and VEPI injection.”