Authors: Greg Cox
“I have operational authority in my contract, Stan.”
This didn’t seem to allay Stan’s anxieties. If anything, he sounded even more apprehensive. “You pull this off-line, it’ll be three months before we get back up.”
You think I don’t know that
, Joe thought, but before he could reply the fluorescent lights flickered overhead. Joe glanced up in confusion.
A second later, a sudden rumble shook the entire building.
* * *
The tremor hit even harder down on Level 5. Sandra’s team froze in surprise. One of her team members, Toyoaki Yamato, looked at her in alarm. “What was that?”
The overhead lights flickered momentarily, but then the subterranean rumbling stopped. Sandra held her breath for a moment, waiting to see if the tremor had truly subsided, before taking charge again. She tried her best to keep her voice steady.
“Just a little farther,” she stated. “Let’s check the cask and get out of here.”
The other workers nodded and quickened their pace. Nobody wanted to linger in the containment area longer than possible.
* * *
Joe could feel the tension in the plant’s control room the minute he and Stan arrived. Banks of sophisticated control panels, gauges, and monitors, manned by a crew of largely Japanese technicians, lined the walls of the chamber, while the main work desk occupied the center of the room. Windows looked over the plant grounds. Glass partitions isolated various support cubicles. Anxious voices exchanged technical data in Japanese.
Joe spotted the men in charge, Haruo Takashi and Ren Hayato, huddled over a bank of monitors. All eyes turned toward Joe, the hubbub of voices quieting somewhat. He could tell right away that there was more bad news coming.
Some birthday this is turning out to be.
“What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.
Takashi turned to face him. The Deputy Plant Administrator was a slim young man, who looked like he was having a bad day as well. “Maybe not such a good time for a meeting,” he suggested.
“Agreed,” Joe said, pushing the seismic graphs on Takashi. “Have you seen this?”
Takashi nodded toward the bank of monitors he had been glued to before. Hayato, the Senior Reactor Engineer, stepped aside so that Joe could see for himself. Joe immediately recognized the distinctive waveform snaking and pulsing across the monitors. It was the same pattern that he had been staring at for days.
“Do we have a source?” he asked crisply. “Where’s the epicenter?”
Takashi threw up his hands. He was more rattled than Joe had ever seen him. “We keep trying… nothing…”
Joe shook his head. “It’s got to be centered somewhere.”
Hayato spoke up. “No one else is reporting. We’ve contacted every other plant in the Kanto region, Tokai, Fujiyama… they’re unaffected.”
Joe wasn’t sure if that was good news or bad. “Are we at full function?”
Takashi nodded. “Perhaps we should be drawing down. To be safe.”
“Is that my call?” Joe asked.
“Right now, maybe yes,” Hayato conceded. He was an older man with graying temples, only a few years from retirement. “We’re trying to reach Mr. Mori, but he’s not answering.”
Joe wasn’t inclined to wait on the owner of the company. Those weren’t profit-and-loss charts on the monitors. This was a safety issue.
As though to drive that point home, another tremor rattled the building. This one was felt even harder and sharper than before. Joe felt the weight of dozens of eyes upon him. He made up his mind.
“Take us off-line,” he said.
Stan balked. A shutdown could cost millions—and possibly their jobs. “Joe…”
“Do it. Wind it down.” He issued the order in Japanese. “Seal down the reactors.”
There was a brief moment of hesitation before the room erupted into a quiet frenzy of activity. Joe suddenly found himself at the eye of storm, overseeing emergency measures he had expected to go his entire career without implementing. The full import of his decision hit home and he felt weak in the knees. A cold sweat glued his shirt to his back. What if he had over-reacted and pulled the plug too soon? This could be the biggest mistake of his career…
, he reminded himself.
He put down his coffee cup on a nearby table, figuring that his heart was already racing fast enough, thank you very much. Diagrams and blueprints were strewn across the table, along with a selection of walkie-talkies on a tray. He snatched one up and started scanning through the channels, searching for a signal. He needed info and he needed it now, damnit.
And he needed to know that Sandra was okay.
Before he could get hold of her, the mug started vibrating across the table, spilling coffee onto the blueprints, which were also shaking as well. Joe glanced in alarm at the monitors, where the pulse pattern was spiking into a new shape. A stronger, secondary jolt, accompanied by a deep sonic thrum that Joe could feel all the way to his teeth, rattled the glass windows of the control room. The walls shook.
Even worse, all the monitors and other electronics lost power for a second, briefly killing the lights, before they popped back on again. Startled technicians swore and shouted and scrambled to check their systems. Agitated voices competed with each other, everybody talking at once.
“No status!” Takashi blurted. “Everything’s rebooting!”
,” Joe insisted, trying to maintain order. “No yelling.”
Takashi got the message, settling down. He regained his composure as Joe raised his voice to be heard over the clamor.
“All personnel not needed for SLCS procedure should begin to evacuate the plant,” Joe announced. “You know the drill.” SLCS referred to the Standby Liquid Control System, which could be deployed to shut down the reactors in case the control rods failed to insert. He waited long enough to see his order being carried out before raising the walkie-talkie to his lips. A recorded announcement blared over the intercoms in the background. He placed a hand over his ear to tune it out. “Sandra? Sandy, can you hear me? You need to get back up here!”
At first there was no response, as he urgently spun through the channels, but then he heard his wife’s voice over the receiver, broken up by bursts of static:
“—ear me… anyone co… this is… report… damage to t—”
The sub-level monitoring station was practically useless. Every screen was either flickering or dead, making it practically impossible to get reliable readings on the reactor core and cooling systems. Sandra kept one eye on her team, who were trying unsuccessfully to bring the equipment back on-line, as she worked the walkie-talkie.
“It’s shaking hard down here, Joe. Do you copy?”
Yamato stepped away from an uncooperative screen. “We’ve lost the monitors!” he reported. He was sweating visibly behind the visor of his helmet.
“Sensors are down,” another technician confirmed.
The team turned toward Sandra, waiting for her to make the call. She hesitated, knowing how much Joe was counting on her to get him the data he needed, but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen. The escalating tremors and blackouts had thrown a monkey wrench in their plans, and forced her to put the safety of her crew ahead of her mission. This was no place you wanted to be during an earthquake… or whatever this was.
“We’re turning back,” she declared. “Let’s go!”
* * *
Yet another tremor shook the control room, nearly throwing Joe off-balance. He grabbed onto the table to steady himself. Overhead light fixtures swayed violently even as the fluorescent bulbs went dead. All the electronics crashed again, while dust was shaken loose from the ceiling. The discarded coffee cup vibrated towards the edge of the table. Joe lunged for the mug, hoping to rescue it in time, but he was too late. It crashed to the floor and shattered.
So much for “#1 DAD.”
The tremor subsided and the lights blinked back on. Everybody held their breath, waiting for the next shock, before frantically trying to resume the shutdown procedure, if it wasn’t too late already. No one, least of all Joe, knew when the next tremor would hit—or how big it might be.
“Joe, are you there?”
Sandra’s voice broke through the static.
“We’re heading back through the containment seal—”
He clutched the walkie-talkie to his ear.
, he thought.
* * *
Sandra and the others raced back the way they’d come, moving as fast as they could in the heavy radiation suits. She prayed that was fast enough.
“You need to get out of there,”
Joe urged via the walkie-talkie.
“If there’s a reactor breach, you won’t last five minutes, suits or no suits.”
She could hear the fear in his voice even through the static.
“Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” she responded, breathing hard. “We’re coming—”
A sonic pulse cut her off, thrumming louder than before. The floor quaked beneath her feet, causing her to miss a step. She threw out a hand to brace herself against a wall, and could feel the vibration even through her insulated gloves. The lights flickered and—
* * *
A massive jolt rocked the building to its foundations, as though it had been struck by a titanic sledge hammer. In the control room, Joe and the others were thrown to the floor. The exterior windows shattered, spraying broken fragments onto the floor, while a glass partition cracked down the middle. A file cabinet toppled over, spilling old paperwork over the floor tile. Empty desk chairs bounced and rolled about.
Sprawled on the floor, not far from the broken coffee mug, Joe rode out the tremor, keeping his face covered. Not until the shaking stopped did he cautiously lift his head and look around. Checking to make sure his glasses were still in one piece, he painfully peeled himself off the floor. His nerves were jangled, and he was bruised from the fall, but he was relieved to see that the control room was more or less intact. His eyes sought out the master control monitors, which, miraculously, were still running. Stan, Takashi, and the others began to clamber to their feet as well. Nobody seemed seriously injured, at least not here in the control room.
But what about Sandra and her team?
He peered up at a video monitor. Closed-circuit TV footage showed a crew in full radiation suits dashing though the reactor unit’s sub-levels. He didn’t need to make out Sandra’s face to know who was leading the team. He pointed anxiously at the screen.
“Sandra and her crew,” he exclaimed. “They’re in the containment area!”
Takashi looked aghast. “Why?”
Joe didn’t have time to explain. “Oh shit,” he muttered. What had that last shock had done to the reactor?. He dashed for the exit, shouting back over his shoulder at Takashi. “Put the safety doors on manual override!”
“I can’t do that!” the deputy engineer protested.
Joe didn’t want to hear it. He shouted back from the doorway.
“PUT THE DOORS ON MANUAL!”
* * *
Sandra and the others raced down a concrete corridor, which felt twice as long as she remembered. A stairway, leading to an upper level, finally appeared before them.
, she thought.
Maybe we can still get out of here in—
Another jolt nearly threw her off her feet. Yamato stumbled, but she grabbed onto him and kept him from falling. The cumbersome radiation suits made every movement clumsier than it ought to be, and were unbearably hot as well; she was half-tempted to shuck the suit, but that would be insane. For all she knew, there could be a leak at any minute.
The team squeezed into the cramped, dimly lit stairwell. They were all panting now, weighed down by the heavy suits and breathing gear. Sandra’s muscles ached and her legs felt like they were made of lead, but adrenalin and panic kept her and the others climbing for their lives.
If they could just make it past the containment threshold…
* * *
An emergency stairwell led from the control room to the primary reactor unit. Joe rushed down, taking the steps two or three at a time. His heart pounded in his chest, going a mile a minute, while he prayed that Sandra was heading toward him from the opposite direction. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could count on Takashi to keep the containment doors open.
, he silently pleaded with her.
Don’t slow down for a second. Please!
Reaching Level 5 in record time, he burst out of the stairwell and skidded to a stop right before the entrance to the containment area. A large button, surrounded by emergency instructions in both Japanese and English, was installed in the wall to one side of the entrance. Joe peered down the long corridor beyond, hoping desperately to see Sandra and the others running toward him, but the hallway was eerily silent and empty, as though it had already been evacuated. He was tempted to run into the corridor to find Sandra, but there was no time to suit up and somebody had to stand by to trigger the manual controls, just in case the worst-case scenario played out, which was looking more and more likely by the moment.
, he thought.
Where the hell are you?
A closed-circuit video camera was mounted in a corner where the walls met the ceiling. Joe hoped to God that Takashi was still watching this. He shouted up at the camera.
“Takashi! Tell me this door is on manual!”
The other man’s voice emerged from the comm system.
“Manual, yes, but Joe—we’re starting to breach, you understand me?”
He understood all right. This was the nightmare that every nuclear engineer dreaded, the one that kept them up at nights, thinking about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. He feared there was nothing he could to do to save one or all of the reactors.
But maybe he could still save his wife.
“I’m right here,” he told Takashi, as forcefully as he could. “As soon as they’re through, I’ll seal it!”
He hoped that would be enough to Takashi’s finger off the panic button, but he wouldn’t blame the other man for playing it safe. Takashi didn’t have the love of his life still in the danger zone.