Dave Fremont sat idly watching six banks of instrument panels which made up the Southbank control system while Pete Longman sat facing the equally daunting Northbank panels, although his eyes were not fixed upon the actual control layout itself; he was watching the tiny flickering flame of the Beadmore flare stack which displayed itself on one of the seven closed circuit television monitors.
"How's the family," queried Dave.
"Val's fine, my parents are hanging in there and my son Tom's got a new girlfriend."
"I guessed that, I was stood behind him in the chemists, you can guess what he was buying." Dave smiled.
"At least he is taking precautions, I am too young to be a grandpa. They teach them sex education on TV and at school these days." Pete looked complacent.
"That would worry me," stated Dave. "When he left the chemists he went into the grocers and bought a bunch of bananas to put them on."
A faint bleating sound came from the east end of the control room.
Pete lifted his tall slender frame from his chair, placed one hand on the small of his back, groaned, then set off down the room towards the distant Systems Analysis and Control unit.
Dave navigated his castor-mounted chair to join Pete. By the time he arrived Pete had already cancelled the alarm. A single red light showed on the alarm annunciator to the left of the Visual Display Unit. Dave lifted the radio transceiver handset away from the console keyboard and pressed 'EXPAND'. The VDU sprang to life - it read 'TRIMARK REACTOR TE3/3 HIGH TEMPERATURE'
"That's odd," remarked Pete.
Dave pressed the tag button then entered TE3/3, finally pressing the display button. The schematic layout of the reactor appeared on the screen.
Pete pointed to the display unit. "There's three temperature sensors on that reactor," he stated. "The highlighted high temp, the emergency cooling water cut-in and the S.A.C. readout."
Dave noted the S.A.C. tag number and entered it on the keyboard. The temperature reading appeared on the screen. "Two hundred degrees Celsius," commented Dave. He tapped a few more keys, then said, "That's normal, we must have a faulty alarm."
Pete shrugged his shoulders, "Better get the technician to have a look at it. Mind you, he won't like it. He was last seen heading to a job at the top of number three distillation column."
"It's seventy metres high, it's a long way to come down."
Dave had a smirk on his boyish face as he picked up the radio hand set. He thought for a moment then queried, "What channel is he on?"
"One - better you than me."
A tall figure leant against the handrail at the top of number three column. Carl had a spectacular view from his vantage point and despite the cold of this frosty November evening; he was taking a few minutes to examine the scenery. The Taneside petrochemical plant stretched out beneath him. In the distance to the north lay the tall Beadmore and Donna flare stacks, throwing a flickering red light on the miniature methanol plant; closer at hand on the left of the roadway was the hydrogen plant with a drum storage compound close by, both faced the new Trimark unit, even closer the phosgene and insecticide plants. To the south there were clusters of distillation columns plus various utility and package units. There was the scientific research block that faced the main control centre - which some referred to affectionately as 'Jekyl's hide'. To the east, the meandering River Tane and in the distance the Tane Hills. Over to the West lay Tanemouth itself, a bustling town, lit by a thousand neon lamps.
"Process control to Carl Jones."
Carl winced, then unclipped his radio from his breast pocket and pressed the transmit button. "What's wrong?"
"Hi Carl, it's Dave Fremont, we have a bit of a problem, could you come down to operations? - Over."
"You are of course jesting."
"No, sorry Carl, I'm afraid not. I'll explain when you get here - Over."
Carl looked at his radio. "Do I detect you snickering, Mr. Fremont?"
"Me! Never....What gives you that idea? Over."
Carl clipped his radio back onto his pocket in disgust. There were a lot of steps between him and the ground.
John Saunders, the shift supervisor, was standing with Dave and Pete as Carl Jones entered the control room; he had a troubled look on his seasoned face.
"Hi Carl," said John.
"I hope you haven't brought me all the way here for nothing?"
John pointed to the VDU on the S.A.C. unit.
"Problem with the S.A.C. I thought that thing was supposed to be infallible. New computer, new plant, all space age design..."
"Remember the Titanic," interrupted Dave.
John ignored them both. "We have a high temp alarm up on the Trimark reactor. The temperature readout is pretty much normal, although it has risen a couple of degrees since Dave called you. We want to know if the alarm is genuine, it is important."
"You think the alarm is faulty?"
John shrugged. "A new high grade fuel called 'neothon' for the ... well it's a defence contract. This part of the process is easy enough; we simply mix the chemicals and keep it cool while they react. We really do need the instrumentation working and accurate."
"No heating," queried Carl.
"Just cooling, the process produces very minute quantities of oxygen, which itself reacts again with the chemicals to cause heat .. It's highly volatile...very powerful...very hush, hush. The reactor is oil cooled, the usual helical coil. The oil is circulated through the reactor to cool the chemicals and warm the oil, then into a water-cooled tank, which is mounted higher than the reactor to cool the oil and warm the water for further usage. Clever eh!"
"Why not simply use water?"
"Oil's harmless but the chemicals mustn't come in contact with water or air, the 'nasty bang' syndrome; they contain too much oxygen. Besides if the flow wasn't high enough the water would boil much easier than the oil."
"The reactor was cheap," continued John, "and the running costs are almost nil, all we have to do is circulate filtered river water; there's a couple of pumps of course in case one packs up. We also have 'towns water' back up. Everything's monitored; flow, temperature, pH, level; the vapour pressure, everything on the main loop."
"Is the reactor under pressure?"
"No. A few centimetres water gauge on the nitrogen blanket, that's all."
"Sounds safe enough," chirped Dave smirking.
"That's the reactor there on monitor four," said John, pointing down to a T.V. monitor on the Southbank panel.
"Since when did you take pictures of a lump of metal?" queried Carl.
"We had to go to town on this reactor to get planning permission to bring it on site. The town council's getting a bit uppity these days. We've even had to install a halon discharge system - the fire quencher."
"That's what I call safe," said Carl.
"Not really," chided Dave. "It's a bit of a red herring. Its place is on turbines and the like. If that fuel reaches its flash point and pressurises the reactor, Tanemouth will launch its first satellite. It's a bit like standing on the volcanic ridge of Mount Etna and pissing into the volcano on eruption day."
"You are the cheerful one," said Pete. "Look at it this way, it's probably the safest plant on the site."
Carl scratched his head, "I think I'd better go down to the reactor and see what I can make of it."
"Can't you do anything from this end?" queried John.
"There's a million wires in these control panels," replied Carl, "and it would take ages to sort the wiring diagrams out. I doubt the information being stored in the S.A.C. unit itself."
"Fair enough. I'll lock out the halon system for you. I would hate you to get dowsed by accident."
"Me too," said Carl frowning.
John Saunders stood by monitor four watching Carl as he warily entered the reactor room. Carl had been joined by a plant operator who John thought might be of assistance. He watched as Carl approached the temperature sensors, took his meter out of his pocket and began screwing the temperature probe enclosure heads off with a gloved hand.
"Carl Jones to control."
"Receiving Carl, what have you got for us?" answered Pete.
"According to my meter and little black book, the higher SAC sensor is reading two hundred and five, the town's water cut-in two hundred and twenty ... big difference, the stirrer hasn't fallen off has it?" joked Carl.
"No, heat rises, the top one would be hotter," said Pete seriously.
John watched Carl stroke his prominent chin, then speak to the accompanying operator before again speaking into his radio transceiver.
"Probably have a fault on the bottom sensor. It's mounted physically lower on the vessel than the others and if the alarms tripped it must be reading much higher." Carl paused a moment. "The reactor is full isn't it?"
Pete pressed a few keys on the keyboard. "Actually it isn't, there's five thousand litres in it - about half full, it's only a test batch - research for the boys."
"What's that in inches - the level in the reactor?"
"I can give you it in millimetres." Pete looked at the VDU. "Two thousand nine hundred - What's that got to do with anything?"
"Hang on," replied Carl, as he tapped the side of the reactor with a spanner. He wiped sweat from his forehead caused by the radiated heat from the partially lagged vessel.
John watched Carl climb the step ladder, take a tape measure out of his pocket handing the end to the operator. He looked to be measuring the vessel.
"Pete, these sensors are above the low level trip, ones around three metres and the other three and a half metres from the bottom of the reactor, you're measuring the nitrogen temperature on the sac. The alarm sensor is reading the liquid temperature. The town's water cut-in is borderline. I think someone's dropped a clanger."
Concern showed on Pete's face.
John ran from the monitor to snatch the mike from Pete's hand. "YOU MEAN THE REACTOR IS AT TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY?"
"If that's the alarm point, it could be more," replied Carl, noting the urgency in John's voice. "I'll check it out. What's the panic?"
"The damn stuff will flash at two hundred and fifty five," replied John.
"I'll check the water line - are you sure the pumps are running?" said Carl.
"The indicators on. I'll make sure," replied John typing on the console keys.
Carl walked with the operator to the river water line and put his hands on the pipe.
"The pipes warm John, we're not getting the water."
"Is that control valve fully open?" queried John anxiously. "The temperature is above the control point."
"Certainly is, but we'll open the by-pass, just in case it's blocked."
Together Carl and the operator wrenched the manual by-pass valve open. Carl glanced at the overhead tank, which had started to bang violently as if the water in the heat exchange coil was boiling.
"Carl, can you get me a correct temperature reading on the S.A.C.?"
"Will do," Carl yanked the wires out of the sac sensor, ripped the cable from its traying and connected it to the alarm sensor. "How's that?"
"Horrible, the reactor's up to two hundred and forty two," replied John, glancing at the VDU.
"Can you open the town's water valve - hold it, don't bother, the town's water is off," said Pete.
"How do you mean off. Don't we have our own storage tank?" Carl's face was now showing concern.
"Well yes! But it's empty. It will be full by the time we resume full production. It was emptied to replace a faulty 'run off' valve. Really the tank should have been refilled by now."
"If it's supposed to be full then why isn't it?"
"The telecom people put a pick through the feed line - burying a cable, I think."
Carl put his hands on the by-pass line. "Have you got a flow reading on the river water?"
"I presume so, we haven't had a low flow alarm." John entered the flow recorder reference on the keyboard. "It's reading full scale, we should have all the water we need."
"Or the damned flow elements blocked. It's only a plate with a hole in which causes a differential pressure," retaliated Carl. "A blocked orifice will show full flow."
"Carl, I think we've got problems, the temperature's still rising."
"Correction, you have problems."
"How do you mean?"
"If that temp's still going up, then we have a blocked water line or at the least a restriction - probably in the flow element. If you think I'm sticking around here, you're sadly mistaken."
"There must be something we can do."
"What's the temperature?"
"Two hundred and forty five."
"We haven't got a chance, it would take me too long to clear that line. From what you have said 'neothon' would make the worlds badist bomb."
"Get back to the control room, Carl."
"Like hell, I've a wife and kids living half a mile from here, if this reactor goes, it could take the site with it - flatten half of Tanemouth, there would be chemical fallout downwind for the next fifty miles. Remember the Italian affair, Mexico, not to mention the horror of Bhopal. We'll make Flixboro look like a popcorn factory."
"If you're so concerned for people, stay and help. Drop the melodramatics."
"Help to do what? I'm out of ideas, besides, millions starve every year that no one gives a damn about. I look after my own. See you in chemical hell, John."
The radio went dead.
John looked at Pete and Pete looked at John.
"Do you think we should tell someone?" said Pete meekly.
"TELL THEM WHAT - SOME DAMNED HALF WITTED TELECOM NAVVY'S PUT A HOLE IN OUR WATER LINE SO WE'RE GOING TO BLOW THE BLOODY TOWN UP IN SYMPATHY.... Sorry Pete, it's getting to me. The best thing we can do is keep this control room sealed and hope that the Trimark reaction ends before the temperature goes much higher." John glanced at the wall clock. "It can't react forever." He re-armed the halon system then walked to the T.V. monitor; he barely noticed the entrance of the operator who had accompanied Carl.
Pete returned his eyes to the VDU; the temperature was now standing at two hundred and forty six. Slowly, with a cold indifference the reading continued to crawl upward, two hundred and forty seven ...two hundred and forty eight.
"The rate of increase is slowing, I think, I hope." muttered Dave.
Pete nodded nervously. "Statistics say we should get away with five hundred and ninety nine mistakes out of six hundred."
Dave remained silent as the air became charged, his cheeky sarcasm had gone; his hands were clenched, knuckles showing white; beads of sweat appeared on his brow and his breathing became laboured.
The readout lifted to two hundred and fifty.
Pete's hands rested on the console, the index of his right hand tapped lightly on its surface. His face was ashen; his stomach hollow.
The seconds ticked by. Two hundred and fifty one.
John Saunders and the new arrival were glued to the closed circuit monitor, which was focused on the Trimark reactor, watching, waiting, silently praying. A heat haze was rising from its surface, wavering the picture, casting a hypnotic spell on its enamoured viewers.
Two hundred and fifty two.
The air was still, close, tension was high. A deathly hush had fallen upon the entire control room. The ticking of the wall clock had now become audible, like a heartbeat it thumped away the seconds, its every beat echoing around the walls, heightening anticipation, spreading fear.
Two hundred and fifty three.
Pete slammed his fist on the console. "It's too late," he stated in a bitter but restrained voice. "She's going to blow."
Dave glanced at Pete, then turned to the pressure readout, hoping against hope that the temperature reading was wrong, but the rapid increase in reactor pressure assured him it was not.
An audible alarm screeched out giving warning of impending danger. An external heat detector initiated a second crimson light on the annunciator. A second later came the flashing amber light of the discharging halon system; the Trimark building was being dowsed by many spewing nozzles.
Pete moved towards monitor four. His interest in readouts had lapsed. The vapour pressure was racing skyward; they had thermal runaway. The deadly chemicals had reached their flash point, the liquid was boiling, churning, producing its own catastrophic oxygen in abundance.
The view on monitor four vanished in a bright white halon haze, then the lights dimmed as all unnecessary power to the plant was cut. The main annunciator sprang into action as alarm after alarm came to life - the entire plant was shutting down. Power supplies were being cut, feed valves were clamping shut, sirens wailed discordantly.
Pete moved down the line of view monitors, until his eyes came to rest on the flare stacks. He didn't hear Dave screaming out a temperature of over one thousand degrees, his eyes were watching a small dancing flame high in the sky. For a moment he seemed mesmerised, then as the fire shot skyward towards the zenith like an erupting volcano, he stepped backward, as if he could feel the gushing heat of that inferno. He moved his eyes to the more distant prime monitor where he could see almost half the site. The giant tongues of flame licked towards the sky, silhouetting tall distillation columns and bulbous storage tanks, whose shadow images danced upon the earth. Billowing plumes of smoke spiralled towards the vastness of the heavens.
"Shut those damned alarms up," cried John. "How the hell can anyone think with this row going on?"
Pete felt John brush past then he moved his right hand dreamlike towards the 'panic button'. As John silenced the last of the alarms, Pete's hand pressed firmly on its target. The light dipped momentarily as the control room switched to internal power. A heavy clunk of metal rang around the room as shining steel latches tumbled loudly into place barring heavy iron doors, then the slithering sound of the ventilation seals, securing their protective cocoon, like the final slab of a tomb.
The action ceased. Pete turned slowly towards the prime viewing monitor, his face unreadable, his eyes blank.
One by one they all turned to the prime monitor as an air of finality swept through the control room. It was quiet .........foreboding.
Pete focused on the Trimark building; it appeared normal, then in silent horror, the roadside wall exploded outward, a fiery liquid following in its wake. It crossed the roadway as if propelled by an invisible water cannon. Sheets of brilliant flame leapt from the storage drums up the cold steel of the hydrogen storages... A savage tremor shook the control centre.
Pete steadied himself on the nearest console; his eyes remained fixed, he had half expected to see the hydrogen storages withstand the heat or perhaps blow individually, but he was wrong. One thunderous roar sent a horizontal wall of fire rushing in a widening arc, towards the control centre. The walls of the phosgene and insecticide building blew away like leaves in a hurricane. A great white cloud mushroomed upward, then the picture was gone...
Amidst the turmoil a telephone rang. There was no one nearby to lift the handset but as the floor and strengthened concrete walls trembled to the multiple explosive quakes, the phone danced its way to the edge of the console then fell to the floor.
"Good evening," came a voice from the dislodged handset, "this is your local water authority. We must apologise for the interruption to your water supply, but everything is now under control; your water has been restored. I hope the delay hasn't caused you too much inconvenience."