The Lockheed Constellation was a magnificent airliner in its day. Built in California between 1943 and 1958, it saw service in the Berlin airlift, was President Dwight Eisenhower's official aircraft, and carried commercial passengers for several major airlines.
The "Connie," as it was known, was a propeller-driven plane with a triple-tail and dolphin-shaped fuselage. Its distinctive design made it easy to spot in the air or on the tarmac. I was a Delta stewardess in the mid '50s, and on a layover at the Cincinnati Airport, I saw one of those impressive airliners sitting by itself behind a hanger. It appeared to be unattended and out of service. What happened?
One of the ground crew explained. During an ordinary takeoff, all four of the Constellation's propellers suddenly and without warning "feathered." This is when the propeller blades rotate so that the leading and training edges are parallel with the line of flight. If it had happened when the plane was airborne, the aircraft would have lost its forward thrust and likely have crashed.
The plane was brought to a safe stop, at which time the propellers — again spontaneously and without input from the pilots — returned to their proper position. The Constellation taxied back to the terminal. The passengers were unloaded and transferred to other aircraft, and there the "Connie" sat.
Since no one could figure out what happened or be sure that it wouldn't happen again, none of the pilots were willing to take her up and the company couldn't find any way to ferry the plane back to its home base.
Fast-forward 56 years to April 20, 2011.
There was an emergency shutdown at Georgia's Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant. It made me think about the "Connie." "Scrams" as the industry calls these incidents, happen fairly often. Little note is made of them because a nuclear power plant has all kinds of built-in redundancies. There are backups for everything, and if one system fails, another takes over.
What caught my attention was the "scram" was reported in the media as a "mystery shutdown." In other words, nobody seemed to know why it happened. A circuit breaker had been tripped and the reactor shut itself down automatically. The circuit breaker was replaced and the reactor is now back in service, but Southern Co. officials still are looking for what they refer to as the "root cause."
They insist that this is simply a maintenance problem, not a safety concern. They're playing with words. When maintenance at a nuclear power plant is in question, it most certainly is a safety concern. We can blame the media for using the somewhat provocative term "mystery" shutdown, but the fact remains that until the Southern
Co. can explain why the circuit breaker tripped, the plant will operate under a shadow.
Over the years, Plant Vogtle has had a number of serious problems. In 1990, it came within four hours of a meltdown when a truck backed into power pole. As we know, (or should know after the Fukashima debacle in Japan), a nuclear reactor must have a steady and reliable source of electrical power to keep its cooling systems running and its core from melting.
Today as in 1990, Vogtle operators insist, "We know what we're doing. The plant is completely under control." Nonsense! No one knows what the next unexpected, unprecedented occurrence will be. How safe is anything when you are dealing forces of nature like earthquakes and tsunamis? How safe is anything when nuclear radiation can contaminate land and water for thousands of years? How safe is it when an unforeseen loss of power can lead to a catastrophic explosion?
Nuclear reactors contain unimaginable amounts of radioactivity. How much is it costing us to isolate it? Every switch, every redundant system must be maintained by fallible human beings. Who oversees them? And why trust corporate owners when they say, "we fixed it," when to admit otherwise means losing their job?
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.