Concrete Evidence: September 1977

December 21, 2014

Concrete Evidence, Feature

Malcolm Adams: Part 3

Adams returned to his point, “Our sources tell us that the pouring schedules in the concrete foundations at the Chernobyl site are faulty.”

“And this means,” she prompted.

“The critical supports under the reactor pile will probably fail within a short period of time—probably not until after the reactor is brought on line.”

“The outcome of this failure?”

He shrugged. “The alignment of the fuel rods and core controls may suffer, increasing the likelihood of an accident. Perhaps, if they’re lucky, they will be able to shut down the reactor without suffering political liability. After that, the fuel could be recovered and another reactor constructed—they plan another one, anyway. You can’t really repair something like that.”

“And worst case?” she wanted to know.

“Break down in controls, possibly a meltdown if they’re unlucky, a major release of radioactive materials into the air very likely. There’s no containment building, so it’s conceivable that the contamination of the area could constitute a major accident. The fuel would never be recovered and would continue to require cooling unless some more drastic measures could be introduced.”

“How much could contamination spread,” she prodded him on.

“Some calculate that the possibilities include a small but general rise in the background levels in Europe. Radioactive substances will show up in the food chain, in the milk for instance. The possibilities are endless and our models aren’t really very reliable.”

“And you subscribe to the worst case scenario,” she ventured.

“Actually, yes,” he admitted, “given the general nature of Soviet secretiveness—but that’s certainly not an official position.”

“No, of course not. Your own development program would suffer setbacks.”  Gonzaga leaned forward, focusing more intently on a sheet in her folder. “I believe you had something you wanted to say about Three Mile Island?”

“The safety factors,” Adams began. “We’ve made some costly mistakes of our own, you know.”

Gonzaga nodded. In front of her was a list of the reported nuclear accidents that had occurred to date in Great Britain—a sizeable number, in fact. She knew that was where the President was focused, and she was worried that the President wasn’t getting the best information from his own sources inside the administration.

“That’s part of the reason for our creation of the Department of Energy,” she said. “The DOE was authorized by Congress in August, so now we can formulate a national energy policy as well as address safety at nuclear facilities.”

“That may be,” Adams said skeptically, “but your Three Mile Island project already contains a potentially fatal flaw.”

“One of your sources?” Gonzaga raised an eyebrow.

“No, a section of the specifications that we obtained as part of the bid procedure,” he said. “In engineering terms, there is insufficient provision for positive control feedback within the system automation.”

“Meaning?” she resumed tapping her finger on the table top. “I’m not an engineer, Mr. Adams. In fact, Washington thinks I’m just here as the President’s token social activist. You may even find that talking with me will brand you as a homosexual.” Adams shrugged as if to signal that he was unconcerned about what people in Washington thought

. “Meaning, in simple engineering terms,” he continued with his explanation of positive control feedback, “if you send a signal to a valve telling the valve to close, you need an independent indication that the valve actually closes. Reliance on the automation system without monitoring the physical performance is a critical mistake.”

Gonzaga hovered over her notes for a moment, scribbled something down that Adams couldn’t read upside down, “Plainly said. I’ll make a note of that and pass it along.”

She badgered and prodded Adams for about fifty minutes longer; asking questions about current levels of security in the U.K., wanting to know about any unofficial results of studies after the large scale release of radioactive Iodine-131 at Windscale in 1957, and also expressing curiosity concerning the public’s reaction to a proposed nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria that would handle spent fuels from both the U.K. and other countries. To Adams, it was plain that Gonzaga was following a script prepared by someone else. He wondered who—the President, himself, perhaps?

Adams dutifully recited chapter and verse in answering or expounding on each of her queries, wondering all the time when Gonzaga would get to the real reasons why he had been summoned to the meeting.

“Among several facilities currently being considered or beginning the construction phase, we decided we needed to take a closer look at one project near the border between Texas and Louisiana,” Gonzaga slipped in just after she surprised Adams with a question about whether Manchester United was going to win the Cup this year after losing to Southampton in the finals the year before.

“Don’t know, but we’ve had a long dry spell since ’63,” he replied, wondering why she’d bother knowing his club membership. An eccentricity? Gonzaga’s smile reminded him of the crocodile who took an ibis from under his feet two years ago near Darwin, Australia.

“Maybe sacking a few people will improve the situation,” she added before she switched subjects back to the business at hand.

“Several of the smaller utility companies in east Texas and western Louisiana are worried about the competition coming out of Houston. They formed a consortium to build a nuclear facility near the Sabine River. The permitting phase was a little rough, smoothed out a bit by a Senator named Jack Sharp, and made easier because we didn’t have the Department of Energy in place,” she explained. “Abreact is the construction company.”

Suddenly Adams knew why he was talking to Madge Gonzaga. Abreact had been involved in several faulty construction jobs in the U.K… They’d failed to satisfactorily answer questions about their quality control, and a certain representative of the company, Jack Sharp, who was now a Democratic Senator from Texas had been behind the team of lawyers who had tried to avoid settling for the cost of upgrading the reactor safety systems.

“We intend to make it easier for you to win a bid on the monitoring systems of this new plant by relaxing certain restrictions,” she went on, bringing his attention back to the present. “On the other hand, we expect you to be competitive enough to win the bid on your own. We won’t be handing out any special favors, you understand.”

“I wouldn’t expect any.”

Gonzaga snorted like a mule and rolled her chair backwards quite suddenly, as if she’d just blundered into something unpleasant. “Frankly, Mr. Adams, I’m uncomfortable doing business this way.”

“You prefer to be more direct?”

“Everyone tells me that my directness is a political liability,” she looks at him warily.

“Let me make the suggestion, then,” Adams stared at the windows, the evening shadows growing deeper and softer now with the sun dropping behind a line of sycamores that edged the campus.

“Don’t make any concessions on the Federal regulations; we have no trouble meeting all of your guidelines. Add some additional language concerning redundant safety systems that make the bid process even tougher. If the evaluation is at all fair, we’ll get that bid and in return your President will have what he wants.”

“Whatever that is,” she said.

“Whatever that is,” he agreed.

Adams watched Gonzaga make up her mind about something, suddenly. He’d been briefed on her sudden mood swings. She stood up and leaned over the desk. “I’m sure you know how to proceed. We will appreciate your cooperation.” Gonzaga offered her hand.

Adams, trying not to engulf her smaller hand in his larger one, was uncertain how hard to squeeze. How did one gauge the correct pressure with women? “I wish you good luck,” he said sincerely, meaning her political career and the rockiness of Washington politics that he knew she was experiencing.

Gonzaga’s fingers pressed against his grip with considerable strength, asserting a force to be reckoned with. She smiled as if she detected his surprise directly through his finger tips. “I’ve spent years holding the hands of abused women,” she said. “It builds strength.”

(To be continued)

This is a work of fiction. All references to real names and places are accidental or are used for fictional purposes only. 

About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

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