Kill Zone: New Excerpt
By Kevin AndersonMay 23, 2019
Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason team up once again in Kill Zone, a perilous disaster technothriller for the modern age.
Granite Bay Nuclear Power Plant, New York
Adonia Rojas surveyed her domain of Granite Bay, frowning—not from what she saw, but from what she couldn’t see.
As the site manager, she held absolute power over all operations and people at the nuclear power plant. When she spoke, people scrambled to do her bidding, although she didn’t abuse her power. Adonia was tall and attractive, young for her position of authority. She was the only female site manager of a nuclear power plant in the U.S., and at thirty-five she was also the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s youngest executive. She’d only had this job for six months, but any doubters needed less than five minutes of conversation to be convinced that Adonia’s rapid rise in her career was due to her brains rather than her looks.
Like all site managers, she hadn’t had a grace period to deal with the backlog and bureaucratic crises, a chance to get her feet under her so she could face the larger challenges. Some of her colleagues had been hit with disasters on the first day on the job. At a bustling, high-tech nuclear power plant, site managers couldn’t afford to have a learning curve.
Colonel Shawn Whalen, her former boyfriend, had once told her that her authority at Granite Bay was equivalent to that of a commander in a war zone.
Instead of being confident, though, this morning Adonia had arrived at the plant after two sleepless nights in a row, not sure how she would deal with the buildup of spent fuel rods. The storage problem was completely out of her control, and it wasn’t going away.
Overlooking the placid shores of the Hudson River sixty miles north of New York City, the morning view looked serene. Columns of white steam roiled out of two massive natural draft cooling towers, each four hundred feet high.
Directly below, next to the wet-storage facility one building away, Adonia could see sparks flying at a work site as a welding crew repaired a vacuum tank. In the middle of the one – point – seven – square – mile complex, a fuel tanker truck toiled around temporary storage buildings as it approached the admin center.
Adonia’s headquarters building, a glass-faced administrative tower, was strategically located at the southwest corner of the site. From the tenth floor, she had an unobstructed view of the fenced Granite Bay facility. And except for the constant buildup of spent rods, all was running smoothly.
No aircraft, not even small drones, were allowed to fly within five miles of Granite Bay’s restricted airspace. Only satellite infrared sensors could detect which building on the large site housed the two-unit pressurized water reactor, filled with over 7,500 highly radioactive uranium rods. A quarter of the rods were retired to cooling pools and exchanged for new ones every year.
Granite Bay provided nearly two gigawatts of electricity to New England. The power plant itself didn’t cause Adonia’s headaches, but all those spent uranium rods still emitted large amounts of radiation after they left the reactor’s core. Though not sufficient to keep powering the reactor, the 13.1-foot-high rods were more than active enough to emit a lethal radiation dose within minutes.
Granite Bay’s spent rods were stored upright in cradles, immersed in forty feet of water, safely covered with constantly circulating liquid that absorbed the radiation and carried away the heat so the pool didn’t come to a boil.
After five years of cooling down, the still-radioactive rods were removed from the deep pools and encased in massive steel and concrete containers, which were filled with inert gas. These containers were then stored inside newer “temporary” buildings.
And just sat there. The dry, high-level nuclear material kept accumulating in storage.
That was where the process ground to a halt. Granite Bay—as with every other nuclear power plant in the nation—had no place to store the deadly material. The containers of high-level waste were ready to be shipped to permanent storage, far from Granite Bay, where they would be safe from any mishaps. But with decades of politics and inaction, there was no facility to receive them. Anywhere.
That was what kept Adonia up at night. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Granite Bay was a power-generating plant, not a permanent storage facility, but all those cooled rods just sat here temporarily—in other words, “forever”—in a place not designed for long-term storage. And she couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
Adonia’s only consolation was that at least she wasn’t alone. Her fellow site managers in thirty states were in the same boat. Granite Bay, like every one of the sixty-one commercially operating nuclear power plants in the U.S., was simply running out of room.
As the early-morning storm blew in, wind whipped dust and leaves around the site and swift clouds closed to smother the brightening dawn. When the outside temperature plummeted twenty-one degrees in ten minutes, moisture condensed on her office window.
Adonia watched the back of the fuel tanker truck come around the corner near where the workers were welding the vacuum tank, rushing to finish before the storm. Flashers on, the fuel truck backed up slowly toward the bright welder’s arc. A shower of sparks swirled in a macabre dance, swept up by the errant breezes, fed by the welder’s arc, rising high.
Adonia looked up into the darkening clouds high above the site, saw one spark much brighter and higher than the others. For a moment she didn’t realize this wasn’t just a spark from the welder. It moved in a straight line, heading down, growing larger. Like an incoming missile.
She sucked in a quick breath. It wasn’t a spark at all, but rather light reflecting off a single-engine plane. The plane accelerated in a nearly vertical dive toward the wet-storage facility one building away. The cooling pools inside that facility housed thousands of uranium rods.
What the hell! That plane couldn’t be overhead—Granite Bay’s restricted airspace stretched five miles in all directions!
She heard the whine of the engines now as the aircraft continued its dive, hurtling toward the storage building like on a bombing run. Adonia realized that the pilot wasn’t going to pull up. Intentionally.
She spun from the window, raced to her desk, knowing she had only seconds. She had to do something, contact emergency ops, stop that pilot—
Before she could grab the phone, the plane smashed into the building’s roof, and a bright, double-pulsed light erupted and overwhelmed her view, like a giant flashbulb.
Adonia’s vision was saturated by flash-blindness. She collided with her desk and fumbled for the phone, trying to find the intercom button. The handset skittered across the desktop.
A second later a boom slammed the windows, and the entire admin building seemed to sway from the explosion.
Stunned, she tried to clear the dazzling blotches from her vision. Outside on the ground below, she saw the welders scramble to their cutoff valves, but before they could kill the power, a sheet of yellow and red flames gushed over the ground, transported by thick, viscous fluid that spewed from the tanker truck.
A piercing siren warbled throughout the admin building. Identical alarms would be sounding throughout the site.
Adonia slapped the red intercom button that tied directly to Granite Bay’s emergency operations desk, but nothing happened.
As the waves of flame and smoke expanded from the crash site, she jabbed at the button again, but heard no response. She worked her way around the desk, still trying to see through her flash-blindness. She found the phone handset dangling from its cord over the side of her desk. Again, nothing. The explosion must have cut the landline.
She found her purse and grabbed her cell phone instead. She speed-dialed the ops center, hoping that cell coverage hadn’t failed as well. As the phone clicked and tried to connect, she grabbed an old emergency handheld radio from the back credenza. She needed to get to the crash site, do something to help.
She ran out of her office holding the bulky radio with one hand and her cell phone to her ear with the other. She bypassed the elevator and veered to the emergency stairwell. How many times had it been drummed into her: never use the elevator in an emergency.
The ops number rang, but no one answered as she jogged down the empty stairwell. It was still early morning, just at shift transition, but the emergency desk had to be manned! Granite Bay was a twenty-four/seven operation.
She made it down five of the ten flights when a voice finally answered her cell. “Ops desk!” Half a dozen people were shouting over each other in the background.
Still running down the steps, she yelled into the phone. “This is Adonia Rojas. Give me an update.”
The man’s voice stiffened when he realized who she was. “Radar picked up a small plane at thirty-one thousand feet two minutes ago, heading for our restricted airspace at high speed. We couldn’t raise the pilot, so we notified the Air National Guard and started broadcasting warnings to the plane. But it kept coming. And . . . and it hit Wet-Storage Building 22A.”
“The impact breached the roof and a Class B fire is spreading outside the facility. Extent of damage is unknown, but we’re preparing to go to General Emergency. Fire crews are on their way, should arrive within minutes.”
“Copy.” Adonia’s stomach twisted. The plane had crashed into the overflow wet-storage facility—intentionally. That building was hardened, but not against that type of attack. The structure was never meant to be more than a stopgap measure to house the additional cooling pools.
When the government refused to let her ship the deadly waste to a proper storage complex, she had begged for facility upgrades on the “temporary” holding structures, including measures to strengthen the buildings to meet nuclear standards against even a terrorist attack. Her pleas had fallen on deaf ears and tight wallets back in Washington, so Adonia had taken the initiative and scraped together enough funds to fortify what she could. She now hoped it had been enough to avert a complete disaster.
As the new set of alarms kicked in, she knew this was the first time since Three Mile Island that a nuclear plant had gone to General Emergency—and on her watch. “Response?”
“Emergency response and cleanup teams deployed. We’re in voice contact, but no detail has been forwarded.” The speaker consulted with someone in the background, then said, “We don’t have an optical link set up yet. We’ll notify you ASAP when we’re receiving visuals from inside.”
She approached the second-floor stairwell. “Copy. I’m heading to the wet-storage facility to assist the on-scene commander.” She didn’t want to think about how hazardous the area would be. “Did the containment hold? Have you implemented the emergency planning zone?” One more flight of stairs, and she was out of breath.
“Yes, ma’am, and we’re preparing potassium iodide tablets for distribution to the general public if any radiation is detected, all part of General Emergency.”
“Good.” She stopped herself from calling out further orders as she reached the last set of stairs. She wasn’t going to jump in and confuse an already chaotic situation. The best thing she could do was to let her people do what they had been trained to do, but she had to make sure they were following procedure. “Have you notified DOE?”
“We’re on the line now. The Department of Energy emergency operations center is trying to set up a call with Dr. van Dyckman, but he’s not in the headquarters building. They said they’d patch him through to you as soon as they find him.”
Good thing Stanley’s out of the loop, Adonia thought. Knowing van Dyckman, he might try to micromanage from Washington.
Stanley van Dyckman was the poster child for the Peter principle, promoted well beyond his level of competence, always taking credit for other people’s work. And now as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy, he wielded just enough clout to really screw things up. But as long as the bureaucrat was out of contact, he couldn’t do any damage.
Having taken care of her legal obligation to notify the Department of Energy, Adonia could focus on helping her team succeed.
The man from the ops desk kept talking as she reached the bottom of the stairs and the emergency exit door. “Ma’am, your phone ID has you calling from one of our Granite Bay cells. Can Dr. van Dyckman reach you on this number?”
“Yes, but if we drop coverage, try this.” She flipped over the emergency radio in her other hand and read out the serial number and contact frequency.
She slammed through the exit door and burst outside, then came to an abrupt halt. She stared at the soot and smoke, smelled burning fuel. Black columns roiled into the air not far from where she stood, but another building blocked her view of the actual burning wet-storage facility. Site alarms competed with loud sirens from emergency vehicles, making it difficult to hear. She felt drops of rain spitting down from the storm.
She pressed the cell closer to her ear as she jogged toward the smoke rising over the next building. “Any better idea what happened? I saw the plane come down—it wasn’t an accident.”
Rustling papers came over the speaker. “He must have been carrying an explosive payload to cause this much damage. Emergency response has detected above-ambient radiation levels, which are steadily rising. There’s still no fiberoptic inside the burning facility to visually assess the damage, but it’s possible the cooling pools were breached, exposing the uranium rods to air. If so, there’s enough radiation bouncing around in there to fry anybody in seconds. And if the fire gets to the unshielded rods—”
Adonia knew full well that radioactive contaminants would be swept aloft by the smoke and fire. This was already an unprecedented disaster, and unless the incoming nor’easter dumped a downpour fast, a radioactive cloud of deadly debris could expand to the southwest—straight toward New York City.
More raindrops splattered the ground. She reached the corner of the building as two additional fire trucks rolled around the corner at top speed. But these weren’t her on-site ladders—these trucks were outside civilian firefighters.
And that meant they were untrained for this kind of disaster. They didn’t have the proper shielding or equipment! Local county units were on call in case of emergencies at Granite Bay, but this was not a typical fire. With the amount of radiation present, the first responders would be putting themselves in danger that they couldn’t even see.
Adonia shouted into her cell. “Ops! Who the hell authorized county ladders onto the site? They don’t belong here!”
A new voice came over her speaker. “Dr. van Dyckman ordered them, ma’am. We’re speaking to his staff now. He personally called all local fire districts and asked them to provide additional support to our Granite Bay engines—”
“Pull them back!” Adonia stopped running so she could shout directly into her phone as the rain increased. “Our people can commandeer their equipment, but those responders need to stay away from the crash site if they don’t have the proper decontamination gear. Do it, now!”
“Yes, ma’am. Stand by one.” The phone went silent for a moment. “Calls are going out canceling all off-site units, but van Dyckman’s Chief of Staff says the Deputy Assistant Secretary is now setting up a conference call with the news media, and he’d like you to participate. He wants you to tell the news media exactly what happened—”
Nobody knows what happened yet! She wanted to scream, but calmed herself, just barely. “Tell him I’m not able to participate in any media circus right now.” She hadn’t even seen the crash site. Furious at the meddling bureaucrat, Adonia thought quickly. “Has DOE notified the other sites across the country? This might be a coordinated attack on all nuclear plants. Think of nine-eleven.”
“Yes, ma’am, they’ve all been alerted.”
Adonia watched as her on-site emergency response crews garbed in yellow decontamination suits covered the gas fires with foam, while moving inside the breached wet-storage facility to contain any radiation release. The impermeable whole-body garments each had self-contained breathing apparatus, protecting the workers from any hazardous materials.
The wind died down as the rain increased, gradually becoming a morning downpour. Hopefully, the heavy rain would wash the smoke out of the air and inhibit the dispersal of any radioactive cloud.
“Has radar detected any other planes approaching our airspace? Is this an outright attack?”
“No, ma’am, and the national command authorities haven’t detected anything abnormal over any of the other nuclear power plants, but they are all on high alert. The New Jersey Air National Guard established a combat air patrol to overfly our restricted airspace with two F-16s, just to be safe.”
She sighed. With the military involved, no other aircraft would get near Granite Bay, or any other power plant. “If anyone from the media wants to know what happened, tell them to contact DOE Headquarters. We’ll let them release details as they come out.”
She shifted the phone to her shoulder. “And tell Dr. van Dyckman’s office that I’ll be able to speak with him once my emergency response has the situation under control. But it may take a while. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am. Loud and clear.”
She knew the cleanup crews had their job cut out for them, mopping up any contaminants and repairing the cooling pools, but at least a near catastrophe had been contained—for now, helped by the rain.
The media catastrophe was about to begin.
Copyright © 2019 Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason.