I first heard about nuclear diving while I was getting my hair cut in downtown Manhattan. My stylist seemed out of place in an East Village salon, so I asked her where she lived. Brooklyn? Queens? Uptown?
“Upstate,” she answered. “I commute two hours each way a few times a week.”
I asked her why, and she stopped cutting.
“Well, my husband has kind of a weird job,” she said. “He’d rather not live around other people.”
I sat up in the chair. “What does he do?”
“He’s a nuclear diver.”
“A diver who works in radiated water at nuclear power plants.”
I turned around to look at her. “Near the reactors?”
“The reactors, fuel pools, pretty much anywhere he’s needed.”
“And is he . . . OK? I mean . . .”
“Is it safe? Well, he says it is. They monitor his dosage levels and all that. Sometimes they’re too high, and he’s not allowed to dive. That’s why we live out in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, I’d rather he didn’t do it. Who wants a glowing husband?” She laughed, a bit sadly.
I told her I was a writer and asked if I could meet him. She said probably not. Most divers don’t like talking about their work, and their bosses discourage the ones who do. “I think it all comes down to the radiation,” she said. “It spooks people. It spooks me! Not that the rest of the job is a picnic. The non-contaminated diving they do—around the huge intake pipes that bring water into the plants—is even more dangerous. Sometimes they get sucked in.” Her husband had survived the day-to-day hazards of his job, she said, but I wondered about the long-term effects. “Has he ever gotten sick?”
“You’d have to ask him.”
“But you said he won’t talk to me.”
She put her scissors down. “He gets chest pains.”
“From the radiation?”
“He says probably not, but what else could it be from? He’s still young.”
She wrote down her husband’s e-mail address, and I tried over the course of the next few weeks to get him to talk to me. He wrote back eventually, but only to say that he was busy servicing a reactor in California. Maybe he’d get in touch when he had more time. By then I was hooked, though. What kind of person knowingly dives in contaminated water? I spent months sending queries to divers I found online, but none of them would talk either. Then came the Fukushima disaster, which changed the nuclear-energy landscape almost overnight. On a hunch, I started contacting plant operators rather than individual divers. An article about the hazards (and heroics) of nuclear diving might not be a plant manager’s idea of great publicity, but it sure beat images of helicopters dumping seawater on crippled Japanese reactors. Someone at the D.C. Cook nuclear power plant in Bridgman, Michigan, agreed. More than a year after that East Village haircut, I was invited to see a dive in person.
Word seemed to get around. I heard back from one of the divers that I had e-mailed previously. If I agreed not to use names, he and two of his co-workers would talk to me.
I met them for lunch at a diner outside Chicago. They looked like hockey players: young, tough, athletic. They talked about where they dove and what they did, and after a while, the conversation turned to radiation. Each had spent years diving in contaminated water, and I asked if anyone had experienced health problems. It seemed like a stupid question, looking at them.
“I got thyroid cancer a few years ago,” one of them said, between bites of his burger.
"From the job?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It was weird. I was 28 years old, in perfect shape. I had no family history or anything."
“So what did you do?”
“I quit diving, but then came back.”
“I missed it. Besides, who knows if the cancer was related? These guys were diving in the same water as me,” he said, nodding at his co-workers, “and they’re all just fine.”
As a cold-war kid who grew up in the long shadows of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, I retain a healthy fear of nuclear power. What other source of energy is so readily associated with Armageddon? Add to this our post-9/11 fear of terrorism, and the landscape darkens further. My apartment in Manhattan is 40 miles south of Indian Point, a nuclear power plant that sits on a fault line and has a history of groundwater leaks and minor explosions. Almost all of the New York metropolitan area’s 19 million residents live within Indian Point’s “Emergency Planning Zone.” One of the hijacked 9/11 planes flew almost directly over the plant.
Hundreds of cities have their own version of Indian Point somewhere out in the gloaming, and millions of Americans live with the jittery bargain these plants present. Indian Point, for instance, supplies New York City with up to 30 percent of its electricity, and no realistic energy alternatives have yet been put forth if the plant were to be shut down. It remains true that nuclear power is the cleanest and safest form of energy currently in wide use in the U.S. Of course, the same was true in Japan until last year.
Making the bargain even more complex is the fact that construction on every one of the country’s 65 working nuclear plants began before 1978. In the years that followed, tough economic times, a burgeoning environmental movement and the near-catastrophic meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania combined to bring an end to the permitting and financing of new plants. The nuclear-energy industry limped along for most of the next three decades, supplying only about 20 percent of the nation’s power. But as fossil fuels fell increasingly out of favor and nuclear energy gained support in Europe and parts of Asia, George W. Bush and then Barack Obama began speaking of nuclear power as a crucial component of any new national energy policy. At the same time, bipartisan support for nuclear energy was steadily rising among both the public and members of Congress. Even many environmentalists were coming to see nuclear power as a necessary, if unwieldy, weapon in the battle against global warming. In February 2010, Obama announced guarantees of more than $8 billion in loans for the construction of two new reactors in Georgia, the first commitment of its kind in more than 35 years.
Then, last March, a tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to a disastrous series of reactor meltdowns. The consequences were immediate. Germany vowed to phase out nuclear power, and other countries spoke of following suit. In the U.S., the nuclear-energy renaissance was left suspended in time. But even as its future remains uncertain, nuclear energy remains an indisputable part of our present. And as our power plants continue aging with no viable replacements, the challenges facing the nuclear industry will only continue to grow. So will the potential for another disaster. The threat of radiation poisoning hangs over everyone who works at or lives near a nuclear plant, but no one more than the divers, who literally swim in the stuff.
It was still dark out when I drove up to the entrance of D.C. Cook. I’d been hoping for something dramatic—low lit reactor buildings emitting ominous steam—but all I could see was a sturdy guardhouse, and beyond it a two-lane road disappearing into the woods. After a few phone calls and a thorough inspection of my rental car, the well-armed security guards allowed me to pass. I drove slowly around a bend, and there they were, the two domed reactor buildings, stone gray and featureless. They were smaller than I’d pictured them, but just as unsettling. I parked carefully (I’d read in a divers forum that security booted any car that so much as touched a white line) and made my way to the building that housed the diving team.
My host, Kyra Richter, was waiting for me at the front door. She had been a nuclear diver for more than seven years, a pioneer in an overwhelmingly male field, but now worked in plant operations supervising the diving program. She was petite, with long dark hair in a ponytail, and she was in a hurry. As she quickly explained the plan for the day, I did my best to keep up. Nuclear divers, she said, perform three different kinds of dives: non-radioactive “mudwork” in the lakes or rivers that supply water to the plant, and, inside the plant, both non-radioactive and radioactive dives. Today the divers would be out on Lake Michigan, cleaning intake pipes.
“In a boat?” I asked.
“Of course in a boat. Is that a problem?”
“No,” I said, unconvincingly. I was worried about getting seasick, but Richter, perhaps charitably, misread my distress. “You’re upset that we’re not contaminated-water diving,” she said. “Well, mud diving is far more dangerous.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” I said.
She grabbed her coat, and we walked to her car, which was parked perfectly. A stiff breeze had come up with the sun, and Richter paused to assess its strength. “Of course, we may not go,” she said. “We can only dive if it’s calm. You can’t tether divers properly if the boat’s bobbing up and down.”
As she drove, she explained that lake diving at D.C. Cook takes place in and around the complex system of pipes, pumps and screens that draws more than 1.5 million gallons of water into and out of the plant’s condensers every minute. The pipes extend a quarter of a mile into Lake Michigan and require constant maintenance. And beyond the normal hazards of welding and cutting at the bottom of a muddy lake—“it can be like looking through coffee”—lie the dangers of the intake structures themselves.
I could find no definitive statistics concerning nuclear diving injuries and deaths, but as I studied news accounts and individual incident reports, it became clear that most diving accidents involved intake work. In 2004, at Point Beach Nuclear Plant in Wisconsin, a diver became trapped when one of his lines got sucked into an intake pipe. The plant immediately turned off its circulating water pumps—which in turn shut down the reactor—so the diver wouldn’t be sucked into the pipe as well. Powering down a reactor too quickly can damage the nuclear core, but in this case everything worked out: The plant went undamaged, and the diver escaped. Other divers have been less fortunate. In 1986 an untethered diver performing intake inspections at Crystal River Nuclear Plant, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, failed to surface. The dive team sent a (tethered) rescue diver to find him. But a few minutes after entering the water, the second diver’s tether went taut and he became unresponsive. The team quickly pulled him up, and his unconscious body was almost to the surface when the tether line broke. The rescue diver sank again from view. As with the Point Beach incident, the intake systems were immediately shut down, but it was too late. Both divers were dead. While the rescue diver’s body was recovered quickly, it took workers almost two hours to locate the first diver. His body had been sucked almost all the way into the plant itself.
Richter, I knew, had been heavily involved in the effort to improve safety, and she’d had some success. In 2009, after years of advocating for the creation of industry-wide regulations, she was offered her current job at Cook. Now she acts as a liaison between plant operators and the dive teams, and the communication lapses that contributed to many of the previous incidents had all but disappeared. There hasn’t been a diving accident at Cook since she became supervisor.
When we arrived at the docks in nearby Benton Harbor, several divers were milling around beside the 52-foot dive boat. They were dressed casually—jeans, T-shirts, work boots—and were, on the whole, younger then I’d expected. None of them were smiling. “Looks like a blow day,” Richter said, shaking her head. “Which means no dice.”
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