The Shaking

Seismic terror is about to strike...

Maverick geologist Brian McLean was ridiculed when he warned London and south east England were at imminent risk of suffering a major earthquake. But when the unthinkable happens buildings collapse, power grids crash, transport is gridlocked, and high-tech life grinds to a shuddering halt.

In the stunned aftermath courier Ryan Buckland journeys through a shattered city to be reunited with his family, Deputy Prime Minister Stuart Pullman sees the emergency as his chance to seize power, while nuclear engineer Alan Carter desperately tries to avert a far greater catastrophe. If he fails, destructive aftershocks will be the least of our problems...

A homage to penny dreadful natural disaster potboilers, The Shaking will rock you to your very core!

A 103,000 word novel. Rated PG 16.


20. Chapter Twenty

Dungeness Power station Administration Block. 11.50

Alan Carter; deputy energy minister Graham Madden; and Michael Williams, chairman of Potentia Energy were in Alan's office. The latter two were impatient having been kept waiting as Alan conducted a hurried conference with his technical staff.

Carter began to brief the pair, watching their expressions change from concern to displeasure as he continued. Finally the deputy minister could no longer contain himself.

"You're saying the government has just wasted a billion or more pounds in a partnership with Potentia Energy to renew a power station which can't be used when the nation's need is at its most acute?" he said disbelievingly.

"Let's go back over what I've just been telling you." sighed Alan, trying to conceal his irritation with the pair. "As I've been explaining a precautionary Site Incident has been declared and the Contingency Control Centre activated. The earthquake has caused some undetermined damage to the plant which will need to be investigated. Fortunately the worst of the follow-on tsunami's effects were mitigated by the raised coastal protection and the flood hardening measures applied to the buildings on site. There was some minor overtopping of, and damage to the sea defences, but considering what might have been we got away lightly.

As far as the repercussions of the earthquake are concerned, Reactor One scrammed successfully as far as can be determined: Nuclear activity within that vessel remains suppressed, and as of this moment there are no indications of any damage to it. However, before a restart can be contemplated the unit will need to be depressurised and there will have to be a meticulous inspection of every component. Given the severity of the seismic stresses experienced today nothing can be left to chance. I estimate the process once begun would take anything between one to six months to complete-"

"That's ridiculous!" Madden exploded. "If it's undamaged then you can bring on line just as soon as the high tension pylons have been repaired!"

"No, I can't." replied Carter emphatically. "The body of legislation regarding the operation of nuclear installations along with the Health and Safety legislation says otherwise. I would be breaking the criminal law if I were to act so recklessly."

"I can arrange for an exception to be made under the State of Emergency; we must have the power those reactors can provide as quickly as possible. And if you're squeamish about doing what needs to be done in the national interest I'm sure someone can be found to replace you."

"You're welcome to try." retorted Alan. "But I doubt if you'll find any takers. Paul Glover agrees with my assessment, and besides Reactor One isn't the problem at the moment; it's Reactor Two which is my greatest concern."

"Go on." Michael Williams interjected.

"It appears to have sustained some unquantifiable damage at the moment, and I fear it may be serious. At least 40% of the control rods which should have automatically dropped into the fuel matrix appear not to have, which means there is still activity ongoing in the core. I'm concerned about why those other rods didn't fail safe."

"What do think might have been the reason?" asked Williams.

"In the worse case the interlocking graphite blocks which the pile is constructed from have been shaken out of alignment enough to prevent the control rods from entering all the way into the channels. That means there are sections of the fuel load no longer under our influence. Now if we are fortunate those elements will remain as they are; active, but not enough to cause further problems-"

So why all the drama, and what's there to worry about?" Madden made no attempt to hide the tone of contempt in his voice.

"That's what I was getting to. We should be all right providing nothing else goes wrong, but there are other issues we need to contend with. With the boilers and steam circuits unable to run due to the hairline cracks we've discovered in some of the welds, the reactor is in what we call a Closed Loop Cooling Mode, which means the carbon dioxide coolant gas isn't itself being cooled by exchanging heat with the power generating system as it was designed to be in normal operation. As far as we know the situation is stable for the time being, but who knows how long that will last."

"So it's safe for now?"

"Yes. As long as nothing else happens."

"Such as?" Madden was beginning to sound less confident.

"Another strong aftershock damaging the unit still further."

"What more could go wrong?"

"Quite a lot actually. My greatest fear is that some of the graphite moderator blocks comprising the core may collapse. There's a possibility that after decades of being heavily irradiated they can become brittle and fracture; not forgetting they've long exceeded their planned service life. Instances of cracked blocks have been observed in other AGRs; fortunately they were overdesigned and had plenty of redundant strength built-in, the units continued running without any problems. But when these stations were planned this level of seismic activity wasn't anticipated, this area not being a severe earthquake risk zone and nothing on this scale ever happening here before, so there was no reason to build-in extra safety features; nor was there a rationale for developing contingency plans to deal with something which was so inconceivable it could never happen-"

"And if those blocks were to suffer a failure?"

"That would depend on how bad the event was. In the worst case a major collapse would allow the fuel rods to fall into close proximity with each other, and were that to happen the increased nuclear activity would raise their temperature way above the design level. Also bear in mind the fuel may be isolated from the cooling effect of the gas flow"

"What then?"

"The rods might melt together into a white hot, highly energetic molten blob which under the influence of gravity would eat its way through the floor of the containment structure. Eventually it would reach the underlying soil and encounter the groundwater table, which this being a coastal area is quite high. Should that occur a number of things will happen: Firstly if the blob contacts the water, much of the liquid will flash into superheated steam which will expand at a phenomenal rate, and finding no release against the incompressible earth, burst upward at great pressure. In addition the generated heat will be such as to separate the water into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen, a combustible mixture which is bound to explode. When it does so the resulting pressure wave will seek any weakness to vent itself, and that will be found through the reactor fueling channels. Bear in mind the steam will give the shock wave an added kinetic force so breaching through the channels should pose no problem; it may even take out the entire refuelling level and spent fuel storage tanks above the reactor as well. Once it's done that it will most likely blow the roof off and exhaust into the open air..."

Both Madden and Williams were shocked into rapt attention.

"But unfortunately that's not the end of the matter." Alan continued. If the carbon dioxide gas is lost from the cooling system the graphite blocks as well as the fuel elements are likely to oxidise, catch fire and issue radioactive smoke directly into the atmosphere. One of the reasons the Dungeness spit was chosen as the site for this power station - in addition to a ready access to cooling sea water - was that if anything ever did go that badly wrong the prevailing winds would carry the fallout away to settle into the North Sea.

Unfortunately the weather forecast for the next few days is the winds will blow in a northerly direction from the continent, which means if such an event were to occur within that time Chernobyl level radiation would be dispersed over large areas of Kent and London."

"Bloody hell!" Madden exclaimed. "But that is an extremely unlikely worst case scenario, isn't it? It sounds like that old film The China Syndrome! And that was just based on conjecture, wasn't it?"

"Indeed; but it's something to bear in mind." Carter replied. "And hopefully it'll never come to that. I've held back from doing this in order not to disturb the reactor any further than necessary, but if an increased neutron flux is detected the core can be flooded with nitrogen gas to inhibit any further activity; think of it as smothering a fire with a wet blanket. And if that fails there's always the last-ditch method of injecting a standby supply of tiny gas-propelled boron beads into the unit. If nothing else works that will, as they'll be carried throughout the fuel matrix and snuff out any reaction for sure. They were always considered to be a reactor killer as once they were deployed it would be impossible to retrieve them. Not that's a consideration in this case as Reactor Two is now nothing more than a pile of highly expensive, radioactive scrap."

"Are you absolutely sure about that?" Michael Williams asked; he wore the pained expression of someone who had just been winded.

"Sadly, yes. And don't count on ever getting much out of Reactor One again; at this stage in its life it may be beyond economic repair. Tamped down it'll provide the minimum of power required to keep the gas circulators on Unit Two running."

Both Madden and Williams looked shell shocked.

"And Minister, I'll need all the help the government can provide in obtaining priority access to stocks of diesel fuel for our emergency generators; not to mention carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen gases to make up for any losses in the cooling systems, along with the means of transporting them here by helicopter given the reported problems on the road and rail networks. We're OK for communications for now with our satellite links, but we'll need to remain in constant dialogue with the worldwide nuclear community in order to develop a longer-term strategy to cope with this incident."

"Now if you've no further questions I'd better get back to the Emergency Management Group." Williams and Madden remained silent; stunned by the bad news they'd been given so far. Alan left, closing the door quietly behind him.

After a short pause Graham Madden regained some of his former composure. "Are you sure he's the best man for the job at this moment?" he asked Williams. "He does come across as rather alarmist. I think you should get a second opinion from independent experts as to the plant's true condition."

"Oh, we intend to; but when it comes to this kind of situation, Carter is among the best there is. He's widely regarded among his peers and has an excellent track record in problem solving. If he's issuing a warning we'd be well advised to heed it."

"I see. And what about..." Madden struggled to remember the name. "The deputy, Glover?"

"A good, solid, dependable man. He's ex-navy; learned his nuclear engineering aboard Trident submarines. Just the sort of person you'd want around at a time like this, and he's his own man as well. If he agrees with Alan Carter you can take it as a given you've a serious issue to contend with."

"Ah..." said Madden. "Well given what I've learned here I think the best thing is for me to do is to return to London and brief the cabinet. I'll summon a helicopter." He reached for his ultrasecure government issue satphone.

"Would there be any chance of a spare seat available?" asked Williams hopefully. "I'll need to speak to the board in London about the impact this will have on the company; we'll probably need to arrange a refinancing as a result of this, and it won't be easy given the state of the markets. We may well require some government assistance."

Madden looked at Williams with the sort of contempt reserved for something he'd just trodden in. "If I remember correctly Potentia Energy are an Anglo-Spanish consortium who did rather well for themselves in acquiring decades of taxpayer funded infrastructure and expertise at a very favourable price; not to mention the generous terms of the operating agreement. It is government policy that private industry should be as self-reliant as possible and not go cap-in-hand for public money whenever it runs into a headwind. I suggest the European banks would be your first port of call."

"Unfortunately we've reached the limit of what they are prepared to lend us. I doubt if there would be much chance of them advancing us any further funds; especially for the care and maintenance of a damaged, non-productive installation. And there is the matter of insurance; I doubt that our provision will provide sufficiently to cover our ongoing liabilities. Under those circumstances the company would regretfully have to conclude declaring itself insolvent was the only option available; and as you are no doubt aware in matters nuclear, the ultimate guarantor is the State."

Madden knew the fact only too well but wasn't going to call Williams' bluff or make an open ended commitment of taxpayers' money beyond the staggering amount already pledged; better to pass that hot potato up to his minister.

"I don't know what type of helicopter will be sent for me, nor if the other seats may already be taken." he replied. "I'm sure you'll be able to charter a flight from France if you act quickly enough before they are all commandeered for relief duties. Or you may choose to stay in place and use the facilities available to you here to resolve your problems." Madden laid particular stress on the your.

The junior minister rose. "In difficult times, much is expected of those in positions of leadership." he said pointedly to Williams. Oblivious to his own hypocrisy and leaving the chairman sat dumbfounded, Madden exited the office, pressing as he did so the speed dial button which would transport him out of this nightmare back to the relative safety of the Westminster shark tank.

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