“Yeah, fire in a nuke plant is a big concern,” Tarelli said to Paul as the two walked toward Fairview’s river water pumping station, a half-mile from the main complex. In the bright spring sunshine they were strolling down a dirt road that passed between a patch of woods and a plowed field. “The Browns Ferry incident back in '74 really brought the fire issue home-”
“That the one the guy started with a candle?”
“Right, he was using the flame to check for drafts beside a sealed-up hole in the wall. Then some of the sealant caught fire and burned a lot of wires going to the control room. Nobody knew it was happening and they ended up losing control of a bunch of their safety systems. It was probably the most discussed event until T.M.I.”
“You were at Three Mile Island after the accident, right?” Paul shook his head. “I tried reading the reports one day, but I couldn’t quite make sense of it.”
“Well, basically, T.M.I. is a pressurized water reactor, not a boiling water like we've got.”
“Like Kittleburg,” Paul said, referring to Hoosier Electric's other nuclear plant.
“Right. More than half the plants in the country are P.W.R.s. Anyway, T.M.I. started out with a scram, which wasn't a big deal by itself. But they didn't realize that a pressure relief valve had gotten stuck open, so steam and water were slowly leaking out of the vessel. The panel lights in the control room indicated the valve was closed, and the instruments monitoring the water level weren't designed to handle the conditions the open valve was creating, so those meters were acting screwy. The operators thought they had more than enough water in the vessel, and one of them even shut off an emergency pump that had started up. Basically, it was a confused mess. When they finally did refill the reactor a couple of hours later, it actually made things worse. The fuel had been uncovered by then, and the top of the core was starting to melt. Some of the tubes in the fuel bundles were so hot that they shattered when the cold water hit them. Then bits of fuel started leaving the vessel through the stuck valve and getting outside of containment.” Tarelli pointed up and out.
“And things went on for a few days. I remember that.”
“They kept having problems. And the info getting out was so mixed-up that nobody in the real world could tell what was going on.” Tarelli shrugged. “Hell, I don't think most of the folks on the inside knew either.”
“Didn’t they have a gas bubble inside the reactor?”
“Hydrogen. Basically, melting fuel reacted with the water, and a lot of hydrogen was formed. Some of it got in the drywell too, and they actually had an explosion a few hours after the accident, but fortunately it wasn't big. You know, technically speaking, their containment - - their version of the drywell -- did a reasonable job, once they got the right valves closed. They had a mini-meltdown, but 99% of the core stayed put.”
Tarelli suddenly stopped and looked up the road. “Deer,” he said, pointing.
It took Paul a few moments to see the three motionless animals staring back at him from the edge of the plowed field, barely a stone’s throw away. Then they took off, gliding silently across the road and into the woods, the last one presenting a flash of white as it leapt through a gap in the trees.
“Nice to see that,” Tarelli said. He started walking again. “Anyway, the thing about T.M.I. that hurt the most was that the same valve had stuck open at other plants before, but everything was handled right and there wasn't a big problem. So the word didn't get passed around. If the guys at T.M.I. had been trained on those other events, the accident wouldn't have happened.”
“So now we review reports from other sites.”
“You got it.” Tarelli smiled. “We’re one big, happy nuclear family.”
Weary from carrying boxes into Mike Langford’s new house, Paul sank onto the front steps. The evening was cool for June, and the breeze felt good.
“So, Paul,” Crutch asked as he sat down beside him, “are you still dating that friend of Maxie's? Vickie whatever?”
“Yeah,” Paul mumbled. “She's okay.”
“She must be. It's been a few months.”
“No complaints.” She was a gift, Paul thought, this pretty girl who took him seriously. High school had given him a one semester romance, but after that there had been nothing more than a few brief dates until his junior year in college, when he had made the mistake of falling for a close friend of his roommate’s fiancée. She was very kind, but it was clear the interest was not mutual. Such things were supposed to fade away, but venturing out with companions meant her constant presence, and Paul often drank too much trying to kill any feelings. At other times he would escape into the video arcade, spending what little money he had playing Defender and Pac-Man. But all that was over now. He had finally moved on, and Vickie was for real. It was a good thing.
Langford stepped out his front door, clutching a diapered young girl against his chest with one arm. “Here you go,” he said, handing out cans of beer.
“Good deal, Boss,” Crutch replied. Tarelli had recently moved a notch up the corporate ladder and Langford had taken his place.
“Cindy decide you were in the way?” Paul said.
Langford stepped out onto the freshly sodded lawn. “At the moment, yes. Between her, Trisha and Maxie, it is a very efficient operation inside.” He set the little girl on her feet, and she took two wobbly steps, toppled over on the grass, and then began playing quietly with the toys clutched in her hand.
Langford sat down, and the three savored their drinks, looking out at the field on the edge of the subdivision, the cooling tower plume of Fairview Station visible a few miles to the northwest.
“You see that NRC report on the guy gettin' zapped in Brazil?” Crutch asked between gulps. “I peeked at it just before hittin’ the door.”
“It was Argentina,” Langford said. He took off his glasses and began wiping away the sweat. “A small reactor was in operation, testing new fuel designs. It was shut down, and a worker was over the top of the core looking into the water and moving some bundles around. Then the reactor came to life. Apparently, they didn’t follow all the safety rules. He got 2000 Rem, whole-body.”
“Jeez, that's two million milli-rem.” Crutch grimaced.
“How much to kill you?” Paul said. “Six hundred Rem?”
“Anything over 650, it’s guaranteed.” Langford said. He slid his glasses back on. “The worker had no chance. In half-an-hour a headache came, then the vomiting. I believe he survived two days.”
“I guess this blows the claim that no one's ever died from the radiation at a reactor,” Paul said.
“Not quite,” Langford said. “That’s just for commercial reactors in the U.S. It doesn’t include the units overseas, or the government plants here. This Argentina event sounds a bit like SL-1.”
“SL-1 was a Navy test reactor in Idaho. They lost some people there in 1961.”
“Didn't a guy get pinned to the roof by a control rod?” Crutch asked as he set his empty can on the cement.
“Correct. There was just one rod, and it was pulled out from above by hand. The operator was standing over it, and apparently he yanked up too fast. That was a problem. The water around the fuel boiled instantly and the steam pressure shot the rod right through him and into the ceiling.”
“Holy shit!” Paul said. “How many people were at this place?”
“Three, I believe,” Langford continued. “Two others were nearby. They all died before they had a chance to explain, so it took some time to figure out.” Langford leaned forward and handed his daughter a toy she had tossed out of reach. “I met a fellow once who was on the initial response team. He was sent through the building holding a Geiger counter, trying to find the missing men. He ran by the top of the reactor and his counter got very noisy. It went upscale.”
“Did he see the guy stuck in the ceiling?” Crutch asked.
“No. He told me that he never thought to look up. After they were finally located, the bodies had to be buried in pieces because of their radioactivity. Their heads and hands were sent to a special landfill. Then the reactor site was bulldozed away.”
“God,” Paul murmured, looking down.
“It sounds awful,” Langford said. “But a few factory workers are killed on the job every year.
“Still sounds bad,” Crutch said.
An aging brown station wagon pulled up in front of the house, and a tall young man in a colorful shirt jumped out, leaving the car in idle.
“I believe it’s time for pizza,” Langford said.
Beneath his hardhat, Wendell Auterman’s copper-colored hair was dark with sweat from the mid-day heat, and he stepped into a patch of shade beside the transformer. His knit shirt clung to his five foot, nine inch torso of medium build, and perspiration was dripping down past his blue eyes and onto his sharp, freckled cheekbones and his thin nose. Uncomfortable as he was, there was still much to learn before he could go home. Then dinner and more studying. But at least this time he knew what he was getting into. When he had first brought his new wife from Philadelphia, he hadn’t been entirely sure. The job market was tight for graduates, but Hoosier Electric had offered him the chance to become a shift technical advisor. The STA program was a result of Three Mile Island, where the control room personnel, taught to operate the plant on a minute-by-minute basis, had been unable to step back and figure out the cause of their problems. Wendell had undergone training and then stood a watch in the Fairview control room. Now, with the additional senior reactor operator's license he hoped to earn at summer’s end, he would qualify as a shift supervisor. Ted Cervantes had felt it was worth the $100,000 it would cost to train him prior to his taking the NRC exam.
Come on, back to work. Wendell studied a sketch of the plant’s power sources in his sweaty hand, then looked up at the massive, humming transformer that sat on the baking gravel. Fed by lines a few miles to the west, the Offsite Power Transformer supplied the plant's electric safety systems, such as the VEPI pumps. A backup unit also sat nearby, powered from a different set of high voltage lines that passed east of the plant.
Finished with his review, Wendell gladly turned his back on the shimmering heat and headed inside. So what happens if both transformers go dead? he asked himself. We‘d lose all the normal electric supplies for our safety systems, of course. But what else? First, he knew, the reactor would automatically scram and the main steam isolation valves would close. No feedwater for the vessel either. There would be no offsite power available to the huge pumps. That’s not so good.
Wendell added it up. If all the offsite power sources were lost, he would have to deal with a nuclear reactor that was shut down, with no water going in and no steam coming out. The vessel would be “bottled up”. It wasn't a stable condition, but it wasn't that bad either. Some safety systems would still be available. The emergency diesel generators and the plant's battery banks would provide their power.
The smell of diesel oil hit Wendell well before the door slammed shut behind him. In the small, cramped room, he began making his way along the head high, orange and green, painted mass of metal that was an emergency diesel generator. The locomotive-sized machine, with pistons the size of a large man’s fist, stretched thirty feet. It could provide enough electricity to run half the VEPI and Fuel Spray pumps, and there was a twin unit in the next room. Just down the hall, Wendell knew, were several battery banks that were kept fully charged and ready. These batteries were used to signal the STurDI turbines and also to power the instruments in the control room.
Wendell examined the controls for the diesel in detail. Finally, he headed out the door. A few more hours of review, and then home -- to Karen.
A young Japanese technician in white overalls and a blue helmet stood at a panel beside the emergency diesel generator, waiting for the start signal. The machine served Minoto Units 1 and 2, and had since the NorthEastern Boiler Company completed work on the plant in 1976. The nuclear industry in Japan was now the fourth largest in the world behind the United States, France, and the Soviet Union, and new plants were still coming on line.
CLANG! The huge diesel engine began turning over, and within ten seconds the roar had become deafening and the machine ready to provide electricity. Foam earplugs made the noise tolerable while the technician took some readings. He was turning to leave when an odd scraping noise caught his attention. The sound grew louder and more distinct and then the locomotive-sized engine began to vibrate. Suddenly, there was a loud CLICK! and the machine gradually slowed to a stop, the strange noise fading away.
“Misha, you are indeed the optimist,” Morozov said. “Of course, in your position, you can make a difference. Perhaps it's not just optimism after all.”
“You're right on both counts, my friend,” Mikhail Gorbachev said. “I do have a streak of optimism -- and there are things I can do.”
“But will it be enough?” Morozov said. He had known Gorbachev since their college days in the crowded student barracks. Now they were strolling along a wooded path at a plush dacha near Moscow. Morozov had flown in for a technical conference. “I'm just not sure the seeds are there for change,” the scientist said to his classmate.
“Yes, I know,” Gorbachev said, his accent betraying his southern origins in the Caucasus. “But change can happen, and when it does, our people will respond. Don't think that because I'm a Politburo member I don't notice of what life is like for the workers. I see the lines, I know about the black market. We must find a better way.”
“But is the Party ready for this?”
“It will have to be.”
“Yeah, Dan, I wouldn’t buy it either,” John Donner said as he got up to leave the control room. “If you think he’s screwed with the engine, that’d be enough for me.” The door slammed behind him, and Vitaly headed on toward the power block and his normal rounds. When on night shift, he was often alone in the reactor building except for the walkie-talkie that kept him in touch with the control room. Such walks gave him time to think. He had quickly recovered from the mock kidnapping and accepted Dmitri’s assurances that he had passed his last test. Vitaly Kruchinkin had performed honorably, as a soldier should. As to why the exercise was necessary, this was a mystery to him at first. Then he had returned to Moscow. The time with Yelena had been wonderful, but it was his debriefing with Dmitri that was on his mind:
“The Center is very pleased with your work, Vitaly Fedorovich,” the stout instructor had said. “I imagine the information you're getting from those air base trips seems trivial to you, but it's very useful.”
“Thank you, comrade.” Vitaly had been off the plane barely an hour, and responding in Russian still felt awkward.
“So tell me more about this promotion,” Dmitri said, leaning forward with interest. “It sounds encouraging.”
“Well, I'll be in training over a year. To get a reactor operator's license. It’s a difficult course. When I finish, I can work in the control room if there's an open spot. It may take a while for that to happen.”
They talked for another two hours about his job, his lifestyle, America in general. The conversation had begun to wind down.
“One more item,” Dmitri said, looking intently at Vitaly. “As I mentioned last time, you are getting a promotion of sorts. From time to time an agent will advance such that we feel it's appropriate to plan ahead for more active measures. Just in case. And you, Vitaly Fedorovich, are now in that group. After all, if we wanted to wreak havoc in the enemy's rear, you might give us an ideal way to do it.”
“Take out a nuke plant.” That’s why they tested my loyalty. Vitaly felt little surprise, but still, it was an idea he did not wish to hear.
“Yes. Give it some thought. How you'd go about it.”
Vitaly nodded, his firm jaw now tensed. It was one thing to spy, to gather information in the abstract. But to take action – - to hurt people he knew -- that was a big step. The American system was corrupt, he could see that, but its people were no better or worse than any other. Still, such an act would be his duty if the Motherland required it. But how far must he go? “In my planning, am I supposed to consider this a suicide mission?” he asked.
“Both ways,” Dmitri replied. “High-risk to you, and undetectable sabotage.” The senior KGB man then paused for emphasis. “And remember -- do not take any action or even mention this in any communication unless you are given the go-ahead by me. Never.”
End Post 10
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
“That kind of perception can sway big decisions.”