3rd Place – January 2024


by Brian Condike

Terrorists attacked the power plant without warning. They crashed their vehicle through the front gate and murdered the two guards. One of the guards punched the alarm before she succumbed to her wounds.

The plant’s security team established a defense perimeter in front of the main entrance. The deafening barrage of their automatic weapon fire stopped the extremists from entering the administration building.

Insurgent bullets peppered the building and smashed the main entrance doors. A bald head poked out through the shattered opening, surrounded by shards of glass.

“What the hell’s going on?” the man shouted.

“Get down, Frank!” Chuy cried. “Take cover!”

Frank dashed out the door and sprinted toward the concrete bollard where Chuy hid from the attackers’ recurring salvos. Tracer rounds chased his footsteps.

“What the fuck is this?” Frank rasped through ragged breath.

“I don’t know, Frank! Whoever they are, they’re well trained and well-armed.”

“We need to protect the reactors!”

“You need to get back inside!” Chuy jumped up and released a fiery burst from his AR-10 and ducked back behind the column.

“It’s my plant, Chuy.”

“You may be Plant Manager, but I’m Chief of Security.” Chuy signaled two of his team to flank right. Bullets continued to pockmark the building. Cordite fumes and concrete dust poisoned the air.

“And you work for me. We need to flank left and protect those reactors. Give me a gun.”

“Go back to your laptop and let me do my job.”

“I was Marine Recon, Chuy. I’m used to this. Give me a fucking gun!”

“You don’t even have a vest.”

Frank’s fierce eyes bore into Chuy until the security chief shrugged and handed over his Glock and two extra mags. “It’s your funeral. Take Brown and Ramirez. And stay down!”

Brown and Ramirez made it to the reactor building. Frank got halfway before high-powered bullets jerked his body like a broken marionette. His mutilated form lay in a twisted heap, alone in the concrete desert between the main building and the reactors.


I felt bad for Diane. None of it was her fault.

It wasn’t her fault terrorists attacked the nuclear power plant. It wasn’t her fault Frank died in a fusillade of bullets. It wasn’t her fault a rookie tech triggered a SCRAM on Unit Two reactor and the ECCS failed. And it wasn’t Diane’s fault Corporate slashed our budget, and the maintenance truck suffered two flat tires which they couldn’t replace.

And it wasn’t her fault she became an insomniac after her husband committed suicide, even if that wasn’t the whole story.

But her boss Frank was dead, and as Assistant Plant Manager, Diane was now in charge.

She strode up to me as I paced the control room like an animal in a cage. The black blotches under her eyes were more pronounced than usual. Without preamble, she said, “Situation report, George.”

“Christ, Diane, you look like hell. When was the last time you slept?”

“I don’t know. A few days ago, maybe.”

She closed her eyes and swayed. I thought she would faint. I reached out to catch her, but her eyes flashed open, and she steadied.

“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “Sitrep, George, now!” Her body odor overwhelmed her perfume. She didn’t seem to notice.

There was no good news. “Three dead, including Frank, plus two wounded. Security is holding off the terrorists, but the crazies have cut our communication lines and jammed our radios and cell phones. We’ll get no help from the outside.”

“Who are these people? What do they want?”

“How do I know? They didn’t hand out business cards. What does it matter who they are?”

She rubbed her eyes. “What about Unit Two?”

“The reactor temp is at 900 degrees Kelvin and rising.”

Diane’s shoulders sagged. “And the ECCS?” Without the Emergency Core Cooling System the radioactive rods would decay too fast and heat up uncontrollably.

“Still not responding.”

“How can that be? We have quadruple redundancy on that system. How can they all break down at once?”

“We’ve re-booted the software and double-checked the valves and pump circuits—it’s none of those things. It must be zebra mussels clogging up the reservoir intakes. Maintenance was headed there yesterday to clean them out when their truck broke down.”

“Goddamn bean counters!” she growled. “Cutting our budget to save a few pennies. This place will go up like Hiroshima because of a stupid flat tire.”

“Two flat tires.”

“Whatever! Can’t we do something?”

I sighed. “We tried using the cooling system from Unit One, but there’s not enough flow for both reactors. I’m fresh out of ideas.”

“What about our fire-suppression system? Is that working? Could we use that?”

I studied the colored flow diagram which dominated the control room’s jumbo wall screen. A quarter of the green ready lights flashed erratically in red, reminding me of Christmas. I had previously silenced the ear-piercing audio alarms so we could concentrate on how to escape the impending catastrophe.

“That might help. We could cross-connect the fire-suppression system to the ECCS. The fire lines don’t use lake water, so they’re not affected by the mussels. It can’t provide all the flow we need to stop core damage, but it might slow it down.”

“Do it. Anything to buy us time. And initiate an orderly shutdown of Unit One.”

I issued the orders and glanced at the numerical readouts. “Core temperature in Unit Two is up to 1200 degrees. That means the zirconium alloy cladding has burst.”

“Shit.” Diane’s eyes darted about the room, seeking answers that weren’t there. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

The radioactive material was now exposed. “It’s only a matter of time, Diane. We can’t stop it.”

She hustled around the room, studying one computer screen after another, briefly engaging with each operator. After completing the circuit, she spoke.

“We’ll have to evacuate.”

“And how do you propose to do that? We’re trapped. The terrorists, remember?”

“You’re the Operations Manager. Think of something!”

“Damn it, Diane! I’m an engineer, not a soldier!”

“Then talk to Chuy—he’s Chief of Security.”

“Okay, but we don’t have much time.” I pointed to a readout. “Temp’s at 1350.”

By the time Chuy had brainstormed an escape plan, Unit Two’s core temperature had climbed to 1500 degrees. At that temperature the zircaloy would oxidize and produce hydrogen, creating more heat. Superheated hydrogen under rising temperature and pressure was a recipe for disaster.

“Chuy’s plan,” I began, “is to set a car on fire and send it toward the main gate. That should distract the terrorists. Meanwhile, we’ll all pile into the company bus and escape out the back gate. Chuy and his squad will provide cover fire to our rear and follow us in their armored personnel carrier.”

She pondered the strategy. “Okay. Tell Chuy to use my pickup as the burn vehicle.”

“Diane, you don’t have to sacrifice your own car—”

“Don’t argue, George,” she said. “Now I want you to take charge of the bus. Get word to the local emergency folks to activate the sirens. They have to clear everyone from the ten-mile evac-zone before meltdown. I’ll stay here and delay the breach of the reactor vessel for as long as possible.”

By then the temperature had reached 1700 degrees and the core meltdown was accelerating. I vehemently argued against her go-down-with-the ship plan and insisted Diane evacuate with the rest of us.

“Is this about your husband?” I said. “Or is it Frank?” It was well known Diane and Frank had an affair. The rumor mill said her spouse discovered her infidelity he blew his brains out in their kitchen while she cooked dinner.

“Fuck you, George. My husband is dead. Now Frank is dead.” Her lip quivered. “My job is over. My life pointless. End of discussion. And besides,” she sneered, “my truck will be s radioactive mass of melted metal in an hour or so.”

There was no more time to argue. We ushered the staff into the bus and fled. As soon as we escaped the compound, we regained cell service and contacted the regional emergency coordinator, and she initiated evacuation in the plant’s ten-mile radius. Area alarms blasted their warnings across the danger zone, for the first time in their lives it was not a drill.

We also called 9-1-1, but there was nothing the police could do with Unit Two reactor on the brink of going critical.

A half-hour later a tremendous explosion shook the countryside.

I assumed the blast had killed the terrorists, and hoped Diane could rest at last.

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