Episode 34

“Control!” the radio beckoned. “Leeman says the diesel still looks fine! Running smooth.”

“Roger,” Fleck said. “We’re going for blowdown and VEPI injection. Anything happens, do what you can.”

“Diesel's okay, Steve,” Cervantes relayed over the phone. He continued to pace, his wide features drawn, his dark eyes squeezed to a thin, intense line.

Fleck lay the radio mike aside. “Gentleman, we're gonna be at required vacuum real quick. Then we go.”

Wendell’s hands flexed. Just tell me, and I'll start the blowdown.

“Larry, take VEPI out of idle,” Fleck ordered. “Put the system in auto.”

“VEPI to auto.” The valve separating the VEPI pumps from the reactor was now set to open once pressure in the vessel had dropped by half. Soon afterwards, the VEPI pumps would force fresh water into the huge tank.

“Required vacuum!” the operator at the ARAFS panel announced. “We're there.”

“Reactor status,” Fleck asked.

“Vessel level is plus 12 inches,” the assistant operator said. “Reactor pressure is 960, torus temp 140.”

Cervantes spoke into the phone, then laid the receiver on the table. He turned to Fleck. “Do it.”

“This is it!” the shift supervisor announced to the room. He looked to the center panel and the P.R.V. controls.

Wendell tensed as he caught his partner's eye. They had been through a nightmare together, standing by helplessly as the water in the reactor had slowly boiled away. Now it was time to turn things around.

Fleck called out the order: “Blow down the vessel! NOW!”

“Blowdown!” Wendell stabbed at the four buttons, alarms sounding as the light above each changed from green to red. “All P.R.V.s open!” As the pressure relief valves lifted, the thirty thousand gallons of scalding water still surrounding the reactor core instantly flashed to steam and escaped in a screeching torrent.

“Level's gone!” the assistant operator shouted. “Downscale!”

Wendell could feel a dull rumbling in the floor as steam raced down into the torus. The pressure indicator for the vessel, a thick red pointer, was plummeting. “Pressure 800!” he said. More alarms began to drone, but all were quickly stopped, and except for the muffled, distant roar of the blowdown, the control room was silent. Pressure continued to fall.


“Torus at 160 degrees, rising!” the assistant operator reported. The water in the massive tank was being heated by the new steam.

“Pressure 600!” The valve will open at five.

Fleck stepped up beside the chief operator, and both stared at the light for the VEPI valve. It was green -- valve closed.

“550!” Wendell reported. Come on, open ... “500!”

The green light held steady ... steady… and then became red. An alarm sounded. “Inject valve coming open!” the chief operator said.

Good! Now for the pumps ... “Pressure 400!” Nothing stood between the vessel and the VEPI pumps, and at 250 p.s.i., they would be able to force water into the huge steel capsule. Wendell stared at the red pointer. The pressure loss was beginning to slow, but the value kept drifting down ... down... “300!” He began calling out the numbers: “290!...... 270!....260!...” Come on! Come on! “... 250!” “Go!” the chief operator said.

“. . 240! . . “

“GOT IT!” the chief operator screamed, as yet another alarm came in. “I got flow! I got flow! ....One and two ramping up!... Both past 7000!”

Yes! It was happening! Jesus, thank you! The VEPI pumps were pouring water into the reactor at 14,000 gallons a minute.

“Level still downscale!” the assistant operator said. The swirling water within the vessel was not yet high enough for the instruments to record.

“Get there,” Fleck said. He moved behind Wendell.

“Pressure 175!” Wendell read off. He glanced at the nearby level indicator. The black pointer still hugged the bottom of the scale. Come on! Up!

“Level is still down--” the assistant operator began. The pointer jerked.

Now! NOW! Wendell’s heart skipped a beat as the indicator began shooting towards the ceiling.

“Level up! Level up!” the operator yelled over the alarms. “Minus 90! Moving fast!”

“Yes!” the chief operator said. “YES!”

“That's it, that's it.” Fleck added. Behind him, Cervantes punched at the air.

Wendell stood transfixed, watching the pointer move up the scale. A button was pushed and the alarm horns stopped. The rumble of the blowdown had also ceased. There were now only voices, and the control room staff promptly quieted as the new countdown for level began.

“Minus 40! … Minus 30! ...”

Wendell felt a massive weight being lifted away. He kept his eyes fixed on the pointer. Come on ...

“Minus 20! ....”

The center panel was the sole focus of attention.

“Minus 10! ....” the assistant operator read off. “... Minus 7 ... 4 ... 1 ... ZERO AND RISING!”

There were cheers. Claps. Broad grins. Wendell felt the remaining burden disappear as a wave of relief swept over him.

Cervantes picked up the phone. “Core's covered, Steve.”


“We’ve re-covered the core!” Steve said to his waiting staff. “VEPI is running.” The stuffy, darkened room erupted, and the plant manager felt his own tension start to drain away. There was still much to do, but the decisions they had made were beginning to pay off. He leaned back and closed his eyes. Thank you. Oh God, thank you.


Emergency diesel generator #1 was rumbling steadily as Karl Leeman inched around it, the beam of his flashlight playing across the machine's surface. His face, flecked with white stubble and lined by age and tension, now bore a new expression -- a slight, satisfied smile.


“200 inches!” the assistant operator said.

Wendell, too, was now watching the level indicator. One of the VEPI pumps had already been turned off, and it was time to stop the other before water began to slosh over into the steam lines. He looked toward Fleck.

“Larry, shut down VEPI,” Fleck said, and the operator flipped a handle.

“Level is 210 -- and holding.” The assistant operator let out a deep breath and leaned wearily against the panel. Seventeen feet of water now covered the core.

There was silence. Fairview Station had just pulled back from the brink of disaster. The chief operator broke the spell. “YES!” The room burst out in excited chatter.

Wendell, too, finally let go. Jesus, we made it. He was almost laughing. We made it! He caught Fleck’s glance, and the two shift supervisors exchanged a look of relief, and triumph.


The emergency center brightened as half the overhead lights came on. Ventilation also returned, and Steve allowed himself a moment to enjoy the cooling breeze. He looked to the door of the radio room, where Tarelli was standing. “Lou, anything more on the release after the blowdown?”

Tarelli stepped closer. “Langford says ten milli-rems was the max in the yard. Site boundary got up to two and then dropped off.. Basically, the only plume out there now is the first one.”

Another break.

“ARAFS helped us out,” Tarelli said. “Crutch hasn’t found the first leak path yet.” Steve looked at the county map, and the orange star inching toward Brixton. “How about the plume?”

“They're picking it up at two miles.” Tarelli pointed at the map. “It probably won’t hit twenty milli-rem.”

It's dropping off quick. “Levels in the plant?”

“About the same. We got all the teams out of the reactor building before the blowdown, just in case.” Tarelli looked around. “We’ve hardly seen a blip on the meter in here. Same for the control room.”

“What about inside the reactor? Any idea what we've got?”

“Basically, we figure core damage is around five percent. Most of the cracked tubes are probably still in one piece. We'll have a better idea once we get a water sample.”

A frown crossed Steve’s tired face. Any fuel damage is too much. Way too much. But -- after all this, five percent I'll take.

Langford came up behind Tarelli. “The load dispatcher estimates five to ten minutes now on the west line.”

Steve heard the good news. Offsite power. Then we’ll really start recovering.


Sprawled across his couch, Vitaly listened to the radios. The police were struggling to cover the evacuation, while the local stations had little new to say. On Hoosier Electric’s frequency, the teams were still tracking the release, and it sounded as if the radiation leak at the plant was under control. The pathway Vitaly had created out of the building was closing itself off.

What will it be like when I go back there? Did the core get screwed up? How much contamination? And how would his fellow employees deal with the disaster? So many things had gone wrong. Would there be suspicions, or just self-recrimination about bad maintenance and poor design? Vitaly told himself not to worry. His plan had been excellent.

Then there was John Donner. The operator must remain at Fairview Station for a time, working hard on the plant's recovery. Of course, there would be an exodus from the Fairview staff, and eventually John Donner would move on. He would talk of somewhere exotic -- South America or Australia perhaps. And finally... it would be over. Home. To be with Yelena, and not face the certain pain of saying goodbye. To be with his child. To know for the rest of his days that he had done his duty. It was a future he longed to embrace. Soon.

Besides the peaceful music from the FM station, there was a lull in the radio noise, and Vitaly punched the search button on the police scanner. It flipped back and forth, discharging snippets of conversation:

“...two, but they were okay...”

“... 25 to station....”


Vitaly leaned forward to adjust the other radios while the scanner continued:

“...the Donut World on the corner. Check in with detective and special agents. They will direct. Out.”

Special agent, Vitaly repeated as he fiddled with the FM dial. That could be ... what? FBI? ... Maybe... Yes, that's right. The thought made him pause, and for an instant his worst fears came into view, but he dismissed any concern. If he’d been under suspicion, they would never have allowed him to complete the job. And it was much too soon after the event for him to be a suspect. The scanner moved on:

“...en route. 2-2-3-1 Elm. Out.”

“...from Brixton, but we'll let you know....”


Time: 4:28 am.

Time from Start of Event: 97 minutes

Reactor Water Level (above Fuel): 211 inches

“How far are we from Fairview?” Liz asked, as she and Paul waited in the deserted lot. Too close?

“Maybe fifteen miles.” There was a catch in Paul’s voice. “Far enough. And the wind isn’t right.”

A standard issue FBI sedan turned in, followed by two patrol cars. “Wait here.” Liz walked over to the agency car and climbed inside. “Hi, Walt.”

“I'm getting too old for this stuff, you know,” Kreveski said, shoving up his black-framed glasses. “And what did your suspect do to Fairview, anyway?

“All I know is what I've heard on the radio. I've got to assume he’s involved. That's my contact from the plant over there. He says the evacuation means it’s pretty bad.”

“Sounds like it. Damn shame too.” Kreveski’s tone grew serious. “So how much did Taylor tell you?”

“We kept it short,” Liz replied. “He just said Donner's at home.”

“Somebody is anyway. Is that all?”

“I don't think he wanted to say much more over the air.”

“Yeah,” Kreveski nodded, “we were careful too. Taylor said the house seemed dead when he got there. He just figured Donner was asleep, but then about four o'clock a car pulled into the driveway.”

He was out! Liz was not surprised, but the news still hit hard -- it was a final confirmation.

“It looked like a man driving,” Kreveski went on. “Car pulled in the garage. Had to be Donner. You wouldn't figure him to have any roommates.”

“Right,” Liz agreed. It was him. It was HIM! “When did Fairview start having problems?”

“The police here first heard about it around 3:15. It'd been going on for a while by then. So with the distances, and the time, Donner could have been there.”

Liz threw her head back against the seat. Damn! She turned to Kreveski in the darkened car. “How we set for picking him up?”

“About ready. I got the judge up and got a warrant. He's a friend of mine. And I let your boss know.”

“Thanks.” Keep this quiet. “So how many people know about Donner, anyway?

“The warrant doesn't mention Fairview. The judge and chief of police know he's an illegal, but it's still narcotics to everyone else.”

“Good. Same with my contact. How soon can we move?”

“I just came back from the place,” Kreveski said. “Got as good a look as I could in the dark.” He flipped on the dome light and displayed a hand-drawn map. “Donner lives at the end of a cul-de-sac on the edge of town, a few miles from here. The street goes up a little rise. Juts out into a cornfield.”

Liz studied the drawing. “It’s the spot an illegal would choose.”

“Well, this one did. Taylor was worried about him sneaking out the back way, so we’ve got a car cruising each of the nearest roads.”

Liz kept her eyes on the map. “How should we go in?”

“What are the chances he'll resist?”

“I don't know. This is a whole new ballgame as far as illegals go.”

“He came home,” Kreveski noted. “There's a light on now. I'd say he's not expecting anyone.”

“So you think try for a standard pickup?”

“Yeah. But go in unmarked. Ring the doorbell and then put the cuffs on him.”


“Car Four, what are the conditions?” The sheriff’s deputy was only a mile from Fairview Station, and Phyllis feared for his safety.

“It’s still dark over by the plant.”

“Any radiation?”

“I just checked the little tube they gave us. Still reads zero.”

“Remember, the sheriff says to stay inside the car if you can. Keep your windows up.” Phyllis clicked off the mike. The news of a radioactive cloud had sent a shudder through her. Hoosier Electric said it wasn’t dangerous, but that was not very reassuring. Somewhere out there was a black fog, ready to bring pain and death. What would it feel like if she ended up in the cloud? Would there be tingling? Burning? Would she go blind? At Fairview Station, Phyllis could picture men and women in lab coats, desperately turning switches, while others in bulky spacesuits battled their way into rooms filled with a misty, greenish glow. All were doing their best to hold back the tide of disaster. But it wasn't enough.

She looked at the picture of her grandson taped to the wall. At least he was safe. But what of her neighbors, her friends? And what would be left in the morning, once the toxic mist had gone by? Would homesteads have to be abandoned – the animals killed, the crops plowed under? Would a big chunk of Potowatomie County be a dead zone? And what kind of gruesome scene would be found at the plant itself? Peering at the county map, Phyllis traced the path of the deadly cloud over the country fields and on into Brixton. She said a prayer.



End Post 34



“Let’s take the other car and get out of here!”


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