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,”
Outside the STurDI-1 area,
“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,”
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.
“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.”
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,
“Get Karl’s ass down here,”
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
“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
“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
“So, start from the beginning,” Guthrie said.
“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?”
“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.”
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,
What was it . . . Tuesday? It was easy to lose track of time, working fourteen-hour days, six days a week. To
When he had enlisted in the Navy after high school,
And he wouldn’t have to do it alone. Before coming to
CLANG! The sound came up the ladder from below, and
End Post 7
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
The intermittent “click . . . click” of background radiation had not changed to the roaring static that meant radioactive dust was clinging to his skin.