Episode 7




     Gary Halvorsen had known this would happen.  Things always broke down late on Friday afternoon.  One of the last free weekends before the outage could well be shot for both he and his partner.  Now, together, they headed down the reactor building hallway.  Physically, the two mechanics were opposites:  Halvorsen was a burly six footer, his rugged face bearing a few acne scars and a five o’clock shadow, his coal black hair sprinkled with gray.  Doug Tama was four inches shorter, blond and pale, with thin features and a wiry build.

     “Why did they test STurDI-1 today?” Doug Tama asked.

     “Gotta test the safety systems every month,” Gary sighed.  “It was time for STurDI-1, I suppose.”   The Steam Turbine Driven Injection System could be important during an emergency.  Normally, the reactor core was kept under sixteen feet of water.  Steam boiled off the top and went on to the turbine, while replacement fluid was sent into the reactor vessel by the two huge feedwater pumps.  But if those pumps failed, the water covering the fuel would gradually boil away with nothing to replace it, even if the nuclear reaction was turned off.  That was the time to use STurDI.  It could keep the core covered with water and safe from a meltdown.    


     Outside the STurDI-1 area, Gary grabbed a stack of anti-contamination clothing off plywood shelves.  The skull cap was white, but the thick cotton jumpsuit, the hood that wrapped around at the neck, the rubber gloves, and the plastic booties were all a bright yellow.  Rubber overshoes of black and a roll of tan masking tape to seal all the loose openings completed the outfit. Because there was no radioactive dust floating free in the STurDI-1 room, Gary would not have to wear a respirator to filter the air.  The clothing requirements were no different than in his Navy days.

     “So they couldn’t get steam to the STurDI-1 turbine?” Tama asked, as he pulled off his jeans.  The STurDI system used the vapor boiling up out of the reactor vessel as the power source for two turbine-driven pumps.  It was like using the energy of a fire to fill the fire hoses.  The pressure inside the reactor vessel was often very high, and against that force, only the electric feedwater pumps or the steam-driven STurDI units were powerful enough to shove large amounts of water into the huge container.

     “Steam valve didn’t move,” Gary said, “so no power for the turbine.  The rules say we’ve got a week to fix it or we shut down.”  Gary slid his stocking feet into his anti-c jumpsuit.  “Hell, at least STurDI-2 tested okay,” he said, referring to the smaller of the two pumps, “or we’d be coming down right now.”     


     A few minutes later, two baggy yellow figures opened the heavy door to the STurDI-1 room and headed down the three flights of metal grillwork stairs.  The area was like a dungeon, with its bare cement block walls and odd noises.  At the bottom of the stairs sat the van-sized STurDI-1 turbine, a lumpy collection of metal parts painted green and black, with protruding tubes, pipes and cables.

     “You guys ready to go?” the health physics technician waiting beside the turbine asked.  He was a small man with a thick torso, his round face framed by a yellow hood.  The boxy Geiger counter in his gloved hand was clicking slowly.

     “Yah,” Gary said, with a touch of a Scandinavian accent.  “Give us the rundown.”

     “Well, it’s not very ‘hot’ down here, about seven milli-rems an hour in the general area,” the HP said, referring to the radiation level.  “The valve’s twenty m.r. on contact, and it smears clean.  But if you tear into it you’ll need masks.”

     Gary looked at the broken valve.  Encased in a shell of burnished sheet metal packed with insulation, the device was a silvery knob the size of an easy chair.  It sat atop a large and equally well-insulated pipe that extended from the wall to the valve and then on to the turbine.  “Let’s give it a try,” Gary said.

     The problem was soon narrowed down to the electric motor that moved the valve.  The six hundred pound device would have to be unbolted and hoisted back to the shop.  If parts were available, Gary calculated, they could have STurDI-1 back in working order by Monday.  Then, perhaps, he could take a day off – and rest up before the refueling outage.






     “Aw, hell.”  Gary’s crew had just finished removing the pale green casing that surrounded a large pump when he spotted a jagged crevice in the polished metal shaft. VEPI pump #2 was cracked, and Gary knew he was looking at a serious problem.  The VEPI system -- Vessel Electric Pump Injection -- provided a backup to the feedwater and STurDI pumps for injecting water into the core.  There were four VEPI pumps, any two of which were enough to keep the fuel bundles from melting even with water pouring out of a gaping two-foot hole in the side of the reactor vessel.  These pumps were much bigger than the STurDI units, but with that size also came a price -- unlike STurDI, the VEPI system could only push water along at half the pressure normally found in the reactor.  To use VEPI, the vessel first had to be bled down.  Precious fluid was lost in this process, but it was quickly replaced by the flow from VEPI.

     “Get Karl’s ass down here,” Gary said over his shoulder to Doug Tama.  “He'll wanna see this crack.”


     The standing joke around the plant was that Karl Leeman had been trained by Henry Ford, and though an exaggeration, the raw-boned maintenance supervisor would occasionally remark that when he had started with Hoosier Electric, the only nuclear power plant in the world was cruising the oceans aboard the Nautilus.  Leeman’s graying, bushy eyebrows furrowed as Gary shone a flashlight on the crevice, and he put his weathered face within an inch of the shaft, careful not to touch the contaminated surface. Lifting his stubbled chin, he peered through the bottom of the bifocals that perched in silver frames on his thin, crooked nose.  “Yessir,” Leeman said, his eyes fixed on the thin line, “that there sucker won’t do.”





     “So only one is cracked?” Steve asked as the two men found seats in his office.

     “Jest VEPI 2,” Leeman said in his Southern twang.  With one thin hand he massaged his narrow lower back.  “X-rayed’em all.  That crack ain’t so bad.  Not deep.”

     “Did we see any evidence this was happening?” Steve asked.  “Vibration when we did our tests-”

     “No,” Ted Cervantes said.  In charge of operations and responsible for running the plant day-to-day, Cervantes had a wide, Hispanic face, an unkempt mustache, and a receding hairline.  He had perched his short, broad body on a table alongside the wall.  “That pump’s always worked.  Ran it when we first shut down.”  Even with the nuclear reaction turned off, the fuel would still produce some heat, so VEPI was used to circulate cool water through the core.

     Steve’s hand was aching, and he was flexing it:  open, closed, open.  “Any idea what caused the shaft to crack?” he asked.

     “Castin’ error, maybe,” Leeman said.  “Can’t know yet fer sure.  Vendor’s sendin’ a guy.”

     “How much will a replacement cost?”

     “Ninety thousand fer nuclear grade.  We git it in twelve weeks.”

     “After New Year's,” Cervantes said in his clipped voice.  His dark eyes narrowed.  “That blows the startup schedule.”  

     “Vendor can speed up the fix,” Leeman said.  “Fer a price.”

     Steve sighed.  The new fuel was now in the vessel, but without all four VEPI pumps in working order Fairview Station would not start the reactor.  He saw no choice.  “Find out how much they want for a new shaft by Christmas.”


     There was a knock on the door frame, and Steve saw it was Mike Langford, accompanied by Fairview’s resident NRC inspector, Phil Guthrie.  A tall, pudgy man with brown hair and deep-set eyes hidden behind thick, tortoise shell glasses, Guthrie maintained the site office of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Steve smiled.  “I suspect you’d like to discuss the VEPI pumps.”

     “If you’re ready,” Guthrie said.

     Steve motioned to some empty chairs.  Over the next week, he knew there would be several such meetings, as Fairview finalized its repair plans.  If Guthrie approved, and his superiors at the regional office in Chicago had no concerns, the work could go ahead.  Or, there might be questions:  some simple, some difficult and expensive to answer.  When it came to a subject as complicated as nuclear power, no two engineers ever thought exactly alike.  Steve knew Phil Guthrie, knew him as a man who was fair and knowledgeable and decent.  But always, there would be a barrier between them, a line between acquaintance and friendship that could not be crossed.

      “So, start from the beginning,” Guthrie said.



Fairview  Emergency Water Injection Sources






     “Well, Paul, you’ve been here a few months now,” Tarelli said, opening the airlock door into the reactor building.  “You like it?”

      “It’s interesting,” Paul said.  It was.  His department investigated problems and also worked closely with the NRC.  “There’s new stuff thrown at me every day.”

     “Me, too, and I've been in this business fifteen years.”  

     “Did you start out here?”

     Tarelli smiled. “Heh, heh.  No, this is plant number four.  Granger Ridge, Bayford and T.M.I. after the accident -- a lot of people went through there.”  

     Paul followed his supervisor, counting on him to find a path through the clusters of helmeted workers and portable equipment that filled much of the main passage.  The two were tracing a wide circle around a curving central wall.  In the middle of the reactor building, Paul now understood, the steel reactor vessel sat within a larger container known as the drywell, like a yolk within an egg.  The massive concrete and steel shell shielded the rest of the plant from the core’s radiation.  It was also watertight.  

     “How thick is the drywell wall?” Paul asked, gesturing at the cement barrier.

     “Six feet of concrete, with some steel mixed in.  Then there’s thirty feet of space full of equipment, then the vessel.”

     The two picked their way through the busy crowd, while around them dials, meters, pumps and valves were being examined or repaired.  Some workers were behind colored ropes in full anti-c’s, while others remained in their normal work clothes.  “Hang on a second,” Tarelli said, putting a hand on Paul’s shoulder.  He stepped over to a petite young woman with curled blonde hair who was leaning against the wall, reading through a procedure.  Tarelli thwacked his finger against the back of the paper.  “You got safety glasses?”

      She looked up.  “Yeah.”

     “Then put’em on!”  Tarelli stared at the woman until she complied, then turned back to Paul and continued walking.  “Watch those people,” he said.

     They passed into a wider space, where workers were climbing into their anti-c's.  One, fully decked out with only her face visible through the gap in the yellow hood, was helping another adjust the straps on his gas mask.  Paul could hear the man's muffled voice forcing its way through the air filter, his features hidden behind smooth, fly-like eyes.   

     “They’re getting ready to go in the drywell,” Tarelli said.  “Probably for M.S.I.V. work.”

     Main Steam Isolation Valves.  The four thick pipes that delivered steam from the core to the turbine jutted out from the reactor vessel into the air space inside the drywell.  At that location each line had an M.S.I.V., and all of the huge valves would automatically slam shut if there were a break in any of the pipes.  That would keep the radioactive steam within the “primary containment,” as the drywell was sometimes called.  An additional set of M.S.I.V.s was also in place just outside the containment.

     Paul stepped aside to let a group of technicians scurry past.  “Man, it’s busy.”  Usually, he saw only one or two other workers.

     “Outages are like this,” Tarelli said.  “If refueling were all we needed to do, we'd finish up in a month.  It’s checking all the other stuff that keeps people busy.  And nothing ever goes as smoothly as we'd like.”  He paused.  “Ever work on a car engine?”

     “Sure, a little, with my Dad.”

     “Ever have a simple fix turn into a real bitch?”

     “Of course.”

     “Well, multiply those problems by something like a million, and you've got a good idea what a refueling outage is like.  Technically speaking, it's one long, expensive pain in the butt.”







     Gary was tired.  And hot.  Some of the air coolers in the cramped, cavern-like drywell were not working and the temperature inside the cement shell stood above ninety degrees.  He sat down on a pipe and leaned against a ventilation duct.  At least some chilled air had passed through this one recently, and the coolness of the metal surface seeped into his thick, cottony anti-c's and mingled with the sweat on his back.  It felt good.  

    He’d worked under far worse conditions in the drywell when the reactor had first been shut down a month before.  Wearing a respirator that had filled his nose with the smell of polyurethane, he had climbed around in a darkness illuminated only by his flashlight, the valve on the mask slapping open and closed with each breath.  The assignment was to search out any small leaks that might go unnoticed once steam was bled off from the piping within the drywell as part of the outage.  Carefully, Gary had probed ahead, always listening for a hiss, and trying to spot a small, billowing cloud of white.  Such a plume could appear out of thin air with no discernable source, since steam itself was perfectly clear.  It was only cooling, liquid drops of water that gave it color.  Somewhere below the cloud would be the leak.  If he wasn’t careful, Gary might suddenly encounter the leak itself, and find the lenses on his mask melting from the heat.  But during this year’s search, he had found nothing.

     Gary stretched his sore limbs and then shuffled in his black rubber overshoes across the metal grating to the desk-sized Pressure Control Valve that he would soon unbolt from its base.  The steam lines to the turbine were not the only exits from the reactor vessel.  Opening a Pressure Control Valve allowed steam to blow from the reactor straight down into a huge tank known as the torus.  The P.C.V.s would automatically open if pressure in the reactor vessel became too high, and they could also be used to reduce pressure so that the VEPI pumps could inject water back in to cool off the core.

     What was  it . . . Tuesday?  It was easy to lose track of time, working fourteen-hour days, six days a week.  To Gary, it was like a long cruise in the Pacific.  And since the health physics technicians were required to monitor all jobs, his wife Carol had been putting in horrendous hours as well.

      When he had enlisted in the Navy after high school, Gary’s knowledge of other cultures was limited to several choice words of Norwegian his grandfather had used while he shuffled about the family home.  A few of these had lodged in Gary’s vocabulary from a young age, including “yah” and “dritt”, and it was only later that his grandfather had explained the latter was the Norwegian equivalent of saying “shit”.  Leaving the service after four years spent babying the power train of a nuclear sub, he had thought about running a tool shop or garage, and even took a few business courses, but it was soon clear to him that he was not cut out for the crap that owners had to deal with.  All he really wanted to do was salt away some money and then plunk it down on a boat for his own charter service on Lake Michigan.  He’d grown up around the harbor, watching the pilots return at the end of the day, and he’d gone out a few times as a kid, serving as a free deckhand.  Once, he and some Navy buddies had rented a boat in the Philippines.  He had dreamed of showing the neophytes how to really fish, but the experience hadn’t proven nearly so grand.  It had rained, continuously, and the jarhead Marine one of his shipmates brought along had spent most of the day heaving over the side.  Still, there were few better places than on the water and behind the wheel.  

     And he wouldn’t have to do it alone.  Before coming to Fairview he’d found a wonderful local girl who would never be confused with the port trollers that had sent him scurrying to the infirmary after shore leave.  His friends had always said he seemed like a moose on ice when dealing with women, but with Carol he had felt comfortable from the start.  Somehow, she was able to overlook his fumbling ways and acne scars and return his affection.  With enough savings, they could move back home to Michigan . . .

     CLANG!  The sound came up the ladder from below, and Gary knelt to grab the bucket full of tools being handed up.  Keep going.  Hell, some day we‘ll start this place up again.  Then you can get some fishing in.







End Post 7








The intermittent “click . . . click” of background radiation had not changed to the roaring static that meant radioactive dust was clinging to his skin.





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