Episode 6




     Paul watched as Mike Langford pulled hard on the airlock door, and then the two stepped inside the narrow hallway.  He had completed the required training and now had his own security pass.  In three days of class work he had learned a lot -- particularly about radiation.  A nuclear reactor produced four types:  alpha, beta, gamma and neutrons.  All four could affect humans by changing the chemical structure of their body tissue – - just how much depended on the amount of radiation present and the exposure time.  Most of the radiation at Fairview was in the form of gamma rays, which were invisible waves of energy that could be stopped only by dense materials like lead.  As a safety measure, the federal government had set limits on the total amount of radiation each plant worker could be exposed to.  These were in units called “milli-rems,” or “m.r.” for short.

     Langford yanked open the second airlock door and the two entered the reactor building.  The older engineer led the way as they walked alongside a thick orange pipe, and then past a bank of gray metal cubes, each with its own handle, that resembled lockers at an airport. These were large circuit breakers.  Finally, they turned a corner and Langford pointed toward a rack of bright green, high pressure tanks the size of scuba gear.  “The emergency brakes.”

     “You mean EmShut?”

     The older engineer nodded.  “Correct.  This is EmShut.”

     Paul had read a little about the Emergency Shutdown System.  “So this is what they use to turn off the reactor.”               

     “True, but only when they need to shut down the whole core at once.  EmShut pushes all the control rods up between the fuel bundles at the same instant.  That halts the nuclear reaction.  Have you had a chance to study the details of nuclear fission yet?”

     “No, and I get the feeling I'm not going to enjoy it.  It looks like a lot of chemistry.  I hate chemistry.”

     A smile appeared beneath Langford’s mustache.  If Tarelli was the office evangelist, Paul had come to understand, then Langford was the quiet professor.

     “Oh, it’s not too difficult.  The nuclear reaction goes like this:  a few of the uranium atoms in the fuel are always falling apart.  U-235.  Radioactive decay.  When that happens to an atom, it shoots out little neutrons.  These end up smashing into other uranium atoms, which then shoot out even more neutrons.  Soon enough, you have neutrons flying all about the place.  That's nuclear fission, and it creates a lot of heat.”

     “That’s the chain reaction?”

     “Correct.  Of course, to keep a handle on things, you need the ability to catch some of those neutrons that are flying around.  That’s where the control rods come in.  Each one is a neutron sponge.  If you shove enough rods up into the core between the fuel bundles, the chain reaction will stop.”  Langford paused to allow some workers to go by.  The three men each carried a plastic bucket full of tools.  “When EmShut is activated, it’s like slamming on the brakes.  That happens automatically if something goes wrong.”  The engineer pointed to the row of green cylinders.  “Every control rod has a tank beneath it filled with high pressure gas.  All that’s needed is a signal from EmShut and that gas is released.  Then VOOM! --  the rods are in the core and the reactor is shut down.  It’s known as a ‘scram.’”

     “That sounds like we’re supposed to run away?, Paul said.

     “No, that would be too easy.  ‘Scram’ is just an acronym.  When they built the first reactor during World War Two, they had only one large control rod, and they would use a rope to winch it out of the core from above.  When they were trying to get the reaction started, they would pull the rod up and tie it off.  But someone always stood by with an axe, ready to chop the rope.  Standby Control Rod Ax Man.  Scram.  Shut down fast.  My father worked with one of those fellows later on.”

     “At a nuke plant?”

     “No, he was a physics professor at Iowa State.  Retired now.  My mother taught psychology.”

     Paul stared at the long row of EmShut cylinders.  “How many control rods we got,  anyway?”      

     Langford furrowed his brow.  “386 fuel bundles and 94 control rods,” he finally said.     

     “Somehow, I didn't picture that many.”     

     “Oh, they build nuke plants big.  It's not worth it otherwise.”



Fairview Reactor Vessel






     Vitaly sat at the old desk in his basement, the ground-level curtains drawn, copying the broadcast of dots and dashes.  When it ended, he began the slow process of deciphering the dispatch, which was addressed to “Blue Raven”, his code name.  As usual, it consisted of little more than encouragement  - – until, at the end, his hopes were realized:


Vitaly, My Beloved Husband,


     Things are going well here.  I am feeling fine, and my parents are doing well.  They were so surprised with the gift I gave them for their anniversary! -- a new refrigerator I bought with some coupons your office sent.  We're all so very proud of you . . .



     Vitaly longed for the chance to see Yelena again.  It would be some time before he had any more vacation, and by then almost a year would have passed since the KGB had provided they young couple with a dacha outside of Moscow.  


     They'd sat one morning drinking tea, looking out from their hilltop perch toward the capital, the spires of an old church glinting amidst the gray concrete of the modern city.  Vitaly had gazed across the table at his wife.  She wore only a robe, loosely tied in the middle so that the pale skin between her breasts was exposed to the light.  Her new earrings dangled behind a thin haze of shimmering blonde hair.  “So, you like your new job?” Vitaly had asked, in Russian.  

     “Oh yes, the work is much nicer.  Shorter hours, and I get more management duties.”

     “It was great to hear about the apartment,” Vitaly said.  “I can't wait to see it next time I'm home.”  Soon, his wife and her parents would move into one of the best housing complexes in Moscow.  Dmitri had kept his word.  Yelena was being well provided for.  

     “Like I said, Mama and Papa just couldn't believe it.  They thought it was some kind of mistake for a while.  The area director had to come down and show them the letter.  I still wake up and think it's a dream sometimes!”

     “I felt that way this morning,” Vitaly said softly.  Their brief times together were passionate and precious.  Neither asked about the months spent apart, how each coped with the loneliness.  Neither wanted to know.  It did not matter.


          His weary evening of decoding at an end, Vitaly re-read Yelena's letter a final time, and then gathered up the papers for burning.  A few more years of John Donner.  Just a few more years.








     The senior shift supervisor looked up from behind the glass separating his office and the main Fairview control room.  An annunciator alarm had sounded, and he scanned the board.  After nine years, the tall, broad-shouldered man knew each rectangle on the wall by heart.  As he stepped through the door, the chief operator pushed a button to silence the buzzer.  “E.B.I.?” the supervisor asked.

     “Yeah,” the operator said, arms crossed in front of his T-shirt, his bony face in need of a shave.  “Temperature problem.”

     “John still out on rounds?”   

     “He called in a minute ago and said he was heading back.”

     “Turn him around.”

     The operator picked up the page microphone.  “John Donner, call the control room.”



     As the elevator carried him up to the Emergency Boron Injection pumps, Vitaly took off his hard hat, DONNER stamped across it, and wiped the sweat from his brow.  Now that spring was turning into summer, the plant was beginning to heat up.  He checked his watch.  The shift was only half over, and already he was tired.  The most recent decoding session had interrupted his sleep.  


     John Donner had been working for Delco Electronics in Kokomo when he'd seen the ad for jobs at Fairview Station.  The idea had intrigued Vitaly.  Moscow told him to proceed cautiously, as U.S. atomic plants were required to perform background checks on their employees.  Vitaly hired on at Fairview and now had advanced to reactor building operator, assigned to monitor the equipment spread throughout the five-story structure.  He enjoyed the work, and his quiet intensity was a good fit with his coworkers, many of whom were happy to tell stories of their Navy days to a willing listener.


     The elevator door opened, and Vitaly headed for the E.B.I. tank.  It contained a liquid version of the control rods that could be pumped into the reactor vessel.  The fluid needed to be kept warm, and there was a problem with the tank’s heater.  Vitaly soon found a circuit breaker had tripped.  He reset it and then headed back for lunch.  John Donner was hungry.








     Steve Borden laid the report on his desk.  FAIRVIEW STATION,YEAR NINE OUTAGE SCHEDULE.  A bemused smile crossed his face.  Nine years!   He had started out as an engineer fresh from reactor training.  Stacey and Martin hadn't even been born yet.   

     The old days -- the good old days.  When you could walk right into the plant without all the security hassles, when the NRC dropped by only a few times a year, and when the thought of having 350 full-time workers -- let alone hiring more -- would have seemed absurd.  But that was a past now long gone.  Nuclear power had grown up, and Steve had too, right along with it.  His rise up the ladder had been swift:  supervisor in the control room, head of plant maintenance, then running Fairview day to day as the operations supervisor; he'd left each department better for his having been there.  He’d worked hard at it too, both in the technical area and in learning people skills such as cultivating the voice and attitude that would signal authority without stifling dissent.  And now he directed the whole show.  

     Plant manager.  It was more than a full time job.  He rarely dealt with the immediate decisions anymore -- when to fix a valve, how to deal with a bad pump.  His concerns were on a broader scale, orchestrating a delicate balance between what was necessary for plant safety, and what Hoosier Electric could afford to spend.  His time was spent approving projects, setting priorities, and discussing Fairview's performance with company executives or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Dealing with the NRC was difficult, but it was the corporation’s money men he found the most trying.  They were not unreasonable, but neither were they schooled in the science or politics of nuclear energy, and expenses he thought were easy to justify often proved baffling to those who watched over the purse strings.

     Steve looked out the second floor window.  It was a beautiful late summer day, a blue sky supporting puffy clouds, the nearby farms a sea of green and gold with their long rows of corn and beans.  The next refueling outage would start in a matter of days, and the schedule called for it to be completed in fourteen weeks, which meant they'd finish up just before Christmas.  Every day they were down was money lost, around a quarter of a million, but the work had to be done.  The reactor needed new fuel bundles of uranium, and other plant equipment had to be inspected or repaired.  They would also be installing a number of improvements –- a new pipe here, an extra valve there.  Provided there weren’t too many unexpected problems, and no new government regulations or safety concerns added to the workload, Fairview just finish on time and on budget.

     His eyes still fixed on the bucolic scene outside, Steve began squeezing and pulling on his right hand, starting with the thumb that ended at the knuckle, then moving on to the index finger, which had a callused stub just below where the final joint had been.  The hand had ached more than usual the past few days.  Perhaps the arthritis was finally taking hold.  

     The injury was the one tangible souvenir of that terrible day in Richmond.  He still had dreams on occasion, but he wouldn’t call them nightmares -- those were reserved for the survivors, and the families of the forty-one who had died when a gas main ruptured beside a store that sold wholesale gunpowder.  But he had brought away another important memento from the explosion and its aftermath -- the confidence that came from knowing he had been tested under the worst of circumstances and had responded with his best.  At the time, he had been mentioned as a hero, but he had never thought of it that way.  It was the right thing to do, and he had done it.  That was enough.

     Steve watched a crow circle and land on a fence post.  A few years ago he might have been playing golf in the fading sunshine, shooting the breeze with a few cohorts from church.  But the days went by too quickly for that now –- there were so many decisions to be made.  This had its own rewards, the time he spent with other professionals, sifting through solutions and working toward common goals.  And over the weekend, he did plan to spend some time with the kids and remind himself that Fairview Station was only a fraction of his world.  They could watch cartoons together, or perhaps play in the yard.  He might take a long walk with Marie.  Then, later, if all were quiet, he would sit in the den and spend a few hours catching up with paperwork.  








End Post 6








Rubber overshoes of black and a roll of tan masking tape to seal all the loose openings completed the outfit.






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