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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Keith Kinsella, the brawny, clean-cut dive-team supervisor (and captain of the boat), was the only one onboard. He too looked downcast. Richter was right—the dive had been canceled. I peered out at the water. I was surprised; it didn't look that rough. But safety came first. The divers would get paid for two hours of work and try again tomorrow. "We probably could have gone for a little while," Kinsella said, "but we don't chance things like that. We don't chance anything."
Keith Kinsella did not begin his diving career thinking that he would work at nuclear power plants. None of the divers I spoke with did. Some were ex-military; others began as oil-rig workers, amateur scuba divers, even competitive swimmers. Kinsella grew up in West Virginia, listening to stories about his uncle, a commercial diver who had helped clean up the massive Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound. "I happened to have a conversation with him in a pretty transitional period of my life," Kinsella told me. "I thought it was cool, and decided that's what I was going to go off and try." In 1990, a year after graduating from high school, he enrolled in a diving academy.
Commercial divers perform a wide variety of tasks. Some repair ship hulls and restore piers, inspect bridges and fortify dams. The more adventurous—and those willing to travel for extended periods—take oil-rig jobs. And a select few take on even more challenging work: hazmat diving (in chemicals and sewage), saturation diving (at extreme depths), search-and-rescue diving, and, of course, nuclear diving.
Kinsella graduated as a certified underwater welder and was hired by a major dive company. That's when he heard about nuclear work. It sounded darkly glamorous. The claustrophobic steel maze of a power plant was a long way from the expanses of Alaska, but he didn't care. As contract divers, Kinsella and his new colleagues moved from town to town like ballplayers on a never-ending road trip. A month at a reactor outage in Alabama. A weeklong fuel-rod job in Wisconsin. A two-day inspection of a pump bay in Georgia. Kinsella took to the work immediately. The pay was poor—as little as $12 an hour—and as a contractor, he was paid only when there was work (despite sporadic attempts at organizing, nuclear divers have no national union). Talented divers were looked after, though, and Kinsella stood out. He never turned down a job, no matter how difficult the work or contaminated the water. (The divers I spoke with said they make about $20 an hour, which added up to somewhere between $20,000 and $60,000 a year, depending on workload and seniority. On contaminated dives, they get an extra $10 per day.)
After several years of traveling for work, Kinsella found himself diving almost exclusively at D.C. Cook. And he wasn't the only one. Southwestern Michigan is a hub for nuclear divers. A dozen plants are within a half-day's drive, making the area a convenient home base, but it is Cook itself that attracts many. Because of the plant's large cooling system, it has been able to contract a full-time team of divers, which Kinsella now supervises.
On the dive boat's bridge, I asked him what would happen if the weather stayed bad. Would his team get paid? "Money definitely becomes an issue," he said.
Since we had time, Richter agreed to take me on a tour of the plant. It took well over an hour to get me through all the checkpoints, puffer machines and metal detectors. Finally inside, we walked through a maze of hallways toward the turbine building. The walls were covered with safety-themed reminders ("All Injuries Are Preventable!") and lists of directives that became more forceful the farther we went. Nuclear plants may be the most earnest places in America. People speak clearly and say what they mean. At the same time, they're incredibly friendly; everyone we passed smiled and said hello. Everyone we passed was also wearing a dosimeter. I was not. I took this to mean we would not be visiting what nuclear workers call "the hot side," the area around the reactors and spent fuel pool, where potential dosage levels are highest. No one, I realized, had mentioned radiation at all. The few times I'd brought it up—to Richter, to Kinsella—I'd been waved off, as if it was beside the point.
Richter was more forthcoming on the subject of diving. She took her first lesson in 1993, while she was living in the Philippines. "My instructors were retired North Sea divers," she said, "so I was hearing all these stories. I was fascinated. I wanted to do that. But I was just a girl." She moved to Cozumel, Mexico, where she led tourist diving excursions and explored underwater caves and then went to commercial diving school in Seattle and graduated at the top of her class. Like Kinsella, she was intrigued by plant work. "They started showing me photos of welding and nuke jobs. And I thought, Nuke! I want to go that way. I knew offshore wasn't the best place for me, as a woman. So I started looking for work." Richter quickly became a sought-after coating specialist, applying paint and other protectants to underwater surfaces, and she spent several years diving in nuclear plants around the U.S. and in Japan.
We came to a staging area, where I was given a hard hat, safety glasses, earplugs and steel tips for my decidedly non-steel-tipped boots. When I was ready, Richter opened a door and we entered the plant proper. We were met with a blast of hot air and a roar that made communication nearly impossible. Which was fine; it was more of a take-it-all-in moment anyway. The inner workings of the plant were a wonder, and the sheer size and complexity of the undertaking, the miles of exposed condensers, coolers, generators, pipes, pumps, tanks and turbines would have launched me into a reverie on the nature of man and the large forces he endeavors to control—but Richter was already moving me along.
We stopped at the screen house, where water from the intake pipes flows into the plant. Richter pointed out half a dozen manhole-size openings in the floor. Divers climbed through them to access the screens and pump bays that trapped system-clogging debris and marine life, including Lake Michigan's ubiquitous zebra mussels. Much of the work down below involved penetration diving with no opportunity for an immediate ascent to open air. "I've done some penetration dives," Andrea Grove, the only other woman on the D.C. Cook crew, told me, "and once in a while, a feeling of eeriness will come over you, like 'Boy, if something went wrong, it would really be bad right now.'"
Something did go wrong here in 2003. A young diver descending into the screen house's discharge vault became disoriented and, when he touched down, began walking in the wrong direction. An emergency intake valve that should have been closed was not, and the diver, overcome by the water flow, was sucked through it. He lost consciousness yet was quickly intercepted by other divers, who brought him to the surface. He recovered quickly, but the dive team was determined not to repeat the episode. They instituted new safety procedures, including detailed flow assessments, additional diver experience requirements, and mandatory pre- and post-dive briefings. Richter now personally oversees the "tagging out" of every valve or switch that might, if mistakenly turned on, put a diver in peril.
That was also the year of the famous fish invasion. Seeking warm spawning water, millions of tiny alewives got past Cook's initial screens and clogged the internal intake systems, requiring both reactors to be shut down. The absurd, almost Simpsons-esque incident could have been catastrophic—the plant activated its emergency plan—but the reactors quickly stabilized. Divers were sent down to assess the situation and, later, helped spearhead the month-long cleanup. After an investigation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found Cook's operations team at fault for not being adequately prepared, an admonishment that helped fuel (along with the diving incident and a transformer fire that led to the temporary shutdown of Unit 1 earlier in 2003) a perception that Cook was a troubled plant. But a change in management marked the beginning of a significant turnaround, and the plant has earned high industry safety ratings for five years running.
As we walked back toward the entrance, Richter recited a series of other recent improvements, to the plant and the team. But something obvious was being left unsaid. D.C. Cook was getting old—39 years and counting. Much of the interior had the sterile, olive-green look of an early NASA mission-control room. With little new plant construction on the American horizon, keeping Cook and other plants running smoothly is becoming more crucial and more difficult. Since so many vital parts of nuclear-energy production take place underwater, it follows that divers will play an increasingly central role in the ongoing life of the plants. I mentioned this to Richter as we stepped outside. Now you're starting to get it, she said.
The following afternoon was another blow day on the lake, so Richter finally agreed to take me to the hot side. After being guided through an even lengthier than usual process of security briefings and screenings, I was at last given a dosimeter. We walked through a thick door and into the "radiologically controlled area" of the plant. I'd been advised not to bring my camera—it could become contaminated—and that idea alone had me checking my dosimeter from the moment we entered. There was no change, but the air felt different, heavier. I mentioned this, calmly, to Richter. She said it was my imagination.
I was still radiation-free when we reached the giant auxiliary building that housed the spent fuel pool. I walked up as close as I dared and gazed down at the storage racks far below. They emitted an unsettling blue glow. A dozen people went carefully about their tasks; this wasn't a place where mistakes could be made. We walked over to the 44-foot-deep transfer canal, where technicians moved highly radiated spent fuel from the reactors to the pool by way of a remotely controlled underwater cart. Divers were occasionally lowered into the canal, Richter said, to repair the cart or the cables it moves along. I gazed into the foreboding chasm. It looked like the last place on Earth.
Back in her office, I asked Richter again about living with the threat of radiation. Again, she brushed the question aside. The topic was so all-encompassing as to be unexplainable. Ask a diver, and they'll say contaminated-water work is the safest kind of diving they do. Try fixing a giant intake valve in zero visibility or penetration diving underneath a condenser. What divers don't say (at least on the record) is that they think about radiation all the time. They keep track of their dose levels the way most people watch their weight. And just as people are hard-pressed to say no to food, divers find it difficult to turn down a job, no matter how dangerous.
Nuclear plants are regulated by at least five different government agencies, but their own rules regarding acceptable dosage levels are always the most stringent. Each plant employs ALARA technicians (the acronym stands for "As Low As Reasonably Achievable") to plan and monitor all activity on the hot side. Radioactivity as it relates to humans is measured in millirems of exposure. Most nuclear plants set their maximum allowable dose level at 2,000 mrem (per person, per year), although the federal government allows up to 5,000 mrem of exposure per year. (By comparison, a standard chest x-ray is about 10 mrem, and a year of exposure to environmental radiation from the soil and cosmic rays is 300 mrem.) But those numbers can be tricky. Occasionally, if a diver approaches the plant's maximum dose level before finishing a dive, he or she can be granted an extension, allowing the level to be raised. "Our plant management—our radiation protection and senior managers—will get together and discuss the merits of a person going over," says Ray Vannoy, a senior Cook ALARA technician. "Sometimes they can bring in another diver so they can split the dose rather than give it all to one person." Ultimately, of course, the diver in the water must approve the extension. They almost always do.
The teams plan and perform contaminated-water dives with such obsessive attention to detail that accidents are extremely rare, especially where sudden or unplanned exposure to radiation is concerned. The far greater danger is time. No one knows for sure how the small but consistent levels of exposure affect the human body over the course of months, years, decades. The divers at Cook have, through unwavering professionalism, gone a long way toward eliminating the immediate dangers that have plagued their work, but the long-term threats still remain.
I managed to leave the plant without ever seeing a diver in radiated water. In any water. Richter knew I was disappointed, so she invited me back for a reactor outage that was scheduled to take place a few weeks later. During an outage, the reactor is shut down so it can be refueled, which also allows for all kinds of crucial inspections and repairs. The plant hires 1,100 temporary workers, more than doubling the full-time workforce. It's also the busiest time of year for the divers. There might even be a nuclear dive, she said.
When I arrived, the divers, whom I'd last seen lounging by the docks, were working at two sites. The first team was replacing a giant discharge valve (more than seven feet in diameter), which required a tricky two-man penetration dive through a series of tunnels and pools 20 feet below the turbine building. The other group was cleaning the debris-strewn intake screens. The divers took turns going down, never more than two in the water at a time. When they emerged, exhausted and often covered with tiny maggot-like water bugs, they looked their supervisor in the eyes and verbally stated their condition. They were always fine. Richter moved back and forth between the two dive sites, making sure everything ran smoothly. The outage clock was ticking away.
Neither dive involved contaminated water. But Richter told me there had been a nuclear dive just two days before I arrived. In fact, it was Kinsella who had been the diver. "I would have told you to come out for it, but there was no time," Richter said. "It was high-priority."
"We don't use that word," Richter said.
I pieced the dive together as best I could. There had been plenty of witnesses, after all, other divers and plant workers. It was the kind of thing you watched if you could, and never forgot. It had started in the lead-up to the refueling, when a worker noticed a problem in the transfer canal I had seen on my last visit. The fuel cart's steel cables were showing wear and needed to be replaced. Since a plant can lose more than $1 million a day when a reactor is offline, the job had to be done quickly so the outage could start on time. That left two options: drain the canal or use a diver. Working in radioactive water would be dangerous for the diver, but emptying the canal could expose a much larger number of workers to contamination (water acts as a radiation shield). The plant managers decided to use a diver. Kinsella volunteered.
As a crowd of workers looked on, Kinsella stepped carefully into a crane-mounted steel "man basket" and prepared to descend into the heavily radiated water. He was wearing a lightweight vulcanized rubber drysuit—to which several radiation-detecting dosimeters had been attached—and a round copper diving helmet that somehow looked both antiquated and strangely futuristic. The rest of the dive team were dressed in white protective scrubs. Some attended to Kinsella, while others, including Richter, took their station at a temporary control center near the canal opening.
Kinsella stood stock still as the man basket began moving. He was holding a radiation probe. Once underwater, he would wave it in front of him, as if groping for a light switch in the dark. A few feet away, a designated tether man let out the lines that would keep Kinsella connected to the world—a communications line, a dosimeter line, an air line, a "pneumo line" that indicates depth, and a strength member (to keep all the other, more fragile lines from snapping). All of these lines were taped together into a single umbilical cord. Kinsella slipped into the placid water, and the unspooling line quickly became the crowd's only visible evidence of the diver's progress beneath them.
When he was chest-deep in the water below, Kinsella stepped out of the cage and carefully descended the remaining distance to the bottom of the chasm, waving the probe in the direction of his movement. Back up top, a technician tracked data from the probe and from other dosimeters. Radioactive particles travel in detectable clusters, and divers are often warned by radio to shift an arm or a leg to avoid a sudden dose.
On this day, Kinsella reached the bottom without incident. He set to work replacing the cables by unbolting, and then sending topside, the block they were attached to. The water was 91 degrees. He was wearing only protective scrubs beneath his dry suit, but it didn't matter; he was soon drenched in sweat. When he was finished, though, the cart had fresh cables. The outage—and the all-important fuel transfer—could begin. Kinsella had received 16 mrem of dosage. It wasn't a lot, but there would be other dives.
David Goodwillie is the author, most recently, of the novel American Subversive.
Twenty dollars an hour to risk the rest of a twenty something's life. You would think there would be a robot for this.
A dive into a transfer canal in a dry suit resulted in 16 mrem dosage. To be honest, that's much less than I expected. They must have flushed/cycled the water in the canal first?
Still, 10$ extra per day for contaminated dives seems meager, especially if it's a dive where the boss only feels comfortable asking for volunteers.
I'll be honest, I'm still reading the article, but if the water were known to be contaminated then they may have considered the dive a planned special exposure (10 CFR 20.1206) in which the dive would be required to be voluntary.
I imagine a number of the dives, especially those with expected doses at higher levels. 16 mrem probably wouldnt count as a PSE, unless they estimated the dose significantly higher.
A bit of an anecdotal perspective: I actually worked with a nuclear diver for about 3 years, said that so long as you knew your work area, most dives were perfectly safe. If you knew the exposure and you were OK with it, the extra money was worth the time (usually short).
@roncandy 20 dollars an hour is the reason there is not a robot for it.
a friend's sister-in-law makes $65 hourly on the laptop. She has been laid off for 6 months but last month her pay was $19426 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more NuttyRich . com
Very interesting article. What a strange job.
It should be pointed out that despite the magnitude of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdowns, not a single person died. Though the plant wasn't designed to withstand a 65-foot tsunami generated by a magnitude 9 earthquake, the emergency response prevented a further disaster.
One year later, radiation levels in surrounding communities are much lower than expected and radiation levels in organisms collected in the ocean near the plant are lower than the normal background radiation. Nuclear power is still the safest form of power generation in Japan. The hazards are real, but the safeguards and emergency procedures are so thorough that a fatal accident is extremely rare.
Communities nearest the plant will remain off limits for perhaps decades as a precaution even though the long term effects of low dosage radiation have never been shown conclusively to cause any problems.
Was it just me, or where it said "continued on page 85" I went to where I guessed page 85 would be and there was nothing about the story. Popular Science is notorious about not putting page numbers on pages.
@ laurenra7; The problems with those tests are endless, but they always begin with the same problem; they are designed to reassure the public no matter what the reality is. The reality is that the area took a massive dose but they say it didn't. Even though there was no way it couldn't have, they still say it didn't. Even though plant heavy water ended up all over the area from mixing with the floodwaters, they say it didn't. As long as it is worth more money to say there's no real problem, that's what will be said. Japan is even worse than the U.S. that way. They fire a couple of scapegoats for lying in some way but do absolutely nothing about the real problems of contaminated water and soil.
I couldn't believe that these guys make 20 an hour but a search on the interwebs showed that's the case. Insane but glad they are doing it...someone has to do it. There are also divers who go "INTO" oil pipelines surrounded completely by Oil to do work/repairs. Not one for the claustrophobic. Talk about Dirty Jobs.
This article is written with too much sensationalism. Its designed to use fear to grab the readers attention. Nuclear plant diving is way more vanilla, controlled, and boring than shown here.
I have worked with Keith and his team on a nuclear dive before. I can tell you that he is a professional and does a fantastic job. These guys and gals are excellent at what they do and I would challenge anyone to do their job as well. This job is safe and lucrative. Nuclear dives are very safe and have many controls in place. In many cases a nuclear dive is chosen because it lowers the radiation exposure of a job.
Dives in the lake and intake pipes have inherent dangers. Again, these divers are excellent and take every precaution to minimize this industrial risk.
I appreciate the work they do.
@laurenra7 It should additionally be pointed out that solar, wind, and tidal power has never put any communities off limits for any amount of time, doesn't cause deaths due to any amount of exposure, and don't create a waste product that requires handling for hundred or thousands of years.
Nuclear's "safety" comes at the expense of people like these that risk long term exposure while making less then my girlfriend as a land based electrical apprentice.
Cancer.org DOES link even small doses of ionizing radiation (one of the types produced by nuclear plants) to cancer. In particular they link cancer of the thyroid and bone marrow.
Solar, wind and tidal are fantastic sources of power, but they will never (I use that world lightly, everything is prone to change) be more than supplemental power sources in the larger picure, as each has geographical limitations and low energy density. As our demand increases, and geographic availability steadily decreases, these power sources are becoming less and less viable for base load generation.
We will always need a bulk generation capacity, and at the moment we look to both coal and nuclear for supplying large amounts of power to supply base load. Both are imperfect, but they are the best mass generators we have, and will likely have for some time to come.
Medical exposure is often overlooked, as it's considered more benefit than harm. That only benefits one individual, or perhaps a family. Make no mistake, Nuclear, like all technologies, carries risk (maybe more so), but also carries huge benefits that affect millions. Do we not also have a tolerable level of risk to justify the benefit with this industry? Far too many comments carry the opinion of 'one time is too many!', or 'No exposure is worth the benefit!'. That's a deeply concerning sentiment, considering the challenges ahead of us.
On that note, I found your second two paragraphs,are a bit selective in logic.
For instance, I earn more as an engineer than most all of our men and women serving in the military. Their job is decidedly more dangerous than mine, yet I do not see how that invalidated their work or the need for their service.
As for the final paragraph, I would obviously need to read the studies, but low dosage correlation is extremely difficult to correlate to incidents of cancer. There are a number of populations living in very high background locations who show below average instance of cancer among their population. Even most credible studies on the Chernobyl incident barely correlate above statistical error.
Further, many people today have had considerable x-ray exposure, either from broken bones or dental imaging. I would be interested how folks would feel about medical exposure as compared to exposure from incidental plant release. A single full body CT scan would give you a larger dose than sitting onsite at Chernobyl (this year, not when it happened) for a few hours (6 mSv/hr Chernobyl, 15-30 mSv/scan).
Geee... I always thought that technical divers were among the most highly remunerated professionals...also the reason why they do not like to talk about what they do, lest their testimony be misconstrued to cost them their jobs.
Wow! Nuclear must be bad!
Come on folks, nuclear is just like dozens of other jobs. This article comments on 16 mrem mysteriously like who knows what will happen. Do you fly across the US in airplanes? 5 mrem. When was the last time you thought about radiation going through security checkpoints? That adds up too. 2000 mrem per year is less than one percent of the amount known to seriously injure people in a single short dose.
Salt is dangerous in large doses, but people aren't scared of using salt. What would happen if you ate 100 teaspoons of salt in one day? It would probably kill you, but you eat salt all the time. Spread out over a year, it would not be a problem. Radiation is much the same where the 2000 mrem is analogous to eating a teaspoon of salt, only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission only allows two and a half teaspoons of radiation per year, even though 200,000 mrem in a single dose is not likely to kill you. It might make you sick, but it would only take a few teaspoons of salt to make you sick, too. Is getting sick from radiation terrible, but is getting sick from salt poisoning ok? Plant operators limit their workers to 2000 mrem per year so they don't take a chance on exceeding Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits and drawing a large fine, not because the NRC limits are too high to be safe.
One commenter states that heavy water from the plant was discharged around the Japanese reactors. That is obviously wrong. Those are light water reactors, not heavy water reactors. Irradiated water is not a problem. Water with radioactive particles in them may be. Most of the radioactivity associated with nuclear reactor coolant gives off beta particles (electrons, similar to the old style CRT TV sets or computer monitors, just at a higher energy). Did you worry about that? Beta particles are stopped pretty much completely by a diver's mask, gloves, and other equipment. And the writer worries that there is a coverup about how much has been released. Radiation monitoring equipment is cheap and very sensitive. It is hard to coverup something that is so easily measured.
The writer comments on the multiple dosimeters like that means the dose is very high. Actually, hands and feet can be exposed to higher levels than can the trunk of the body, with less hazard to the person. And radiation doses can vary rapidly from point to point, especially inside reactor vessels or fuel pools. Divers may place their hands close to the source, and keep the rest of the body away. The dosimeters are to verify that they did that. If they didn't and they exceed their allowed dose, they would not be allowed to dive again, or their future dive hours would be cut. Nothing scary about that at all. One thing about radiation: it is easy to measure with simple and inexpensive equipment, so the nuclear industry measures it. Most chemicals used in making plastics, electronics, etc. require hundred thousand dollar machines to measure it, and they aren't usually portable. Just because we don't measure the chemicals doesn't make them less dangerous.
The comment about planned special exposures: A routine operation such as covered by this article is not likely to be a "planned special exposure". This work is normal occupational exposure to radiation, such as applies to thousands of workers across the country, not just divers. And the divers are not forced to do nuclear work, so that means they are voluntarily performing the work.
This article implied that nuclear plants are unique in requiring divers to risk their lives to maintain cooling water channels. Oh no, there are many plants including coal-fired plants that require divers to risk their lives, also.
People like to say new nuclear plants haven't been built in the last 30 years. Keep in mind that in 1980, the average capacity factor of the nuclear fleet was 60 percent, where the capacity factor is the percentage of the theoretical maximum possible output of the plant. Since then, the capacity factor has increased to above 90 percent, without building new plants. That means the existing plants are generating 50 percent more power with the same equipment now than 30 years ago. And many plants have been uprated to produce 10 to 15 percent more power than in their original design. So although new plants haven't been completed, they sure do produce much more power than they did 30 years ago. That is part of the reason why new plants haven't been built: they just haven't been needed. Is that really a sign of a troubled industry? Tell me how many new coal-fired plants have been built in the last 30 years: now there is a real troubled industry, and not just because of their many environmental issues. I think nuclear is here to stay, coal, not so much!
Modern nuclear power plants will be more safe than the older ones. Consider the fact we have actually survived the old ones (the first ones).
We survived Chernobyl and Fukushima and several submarine accidents. The worst of all may have been the Russian submarine explosion (rather than Chernobyl).
New plants should be built in remote locations. If there is an accident then people won't be forced from their homes, and radiation pollution will have to travel farther to reach drinking water supplies.
Nuclear power is crucial to future generations. Over time, nuclear experts will develope it for the benefit of an aging sun and when other resources may diminish.
i know of a few of the radiation poisoning side affects and 1 of them is chest pains then again the stuff that gets rid of radiation can also cause chest pains and different cancers can be gotten from radiation. hopefylly those suits are lead lined because if they aren't that means they're being flayed broiled everytime they jump in rad-x or not but then again the stuff they have to take to get rid of radiation they may or may not have gotten only will slow down the side effects when they have to jump in everyday and the water also helps so it is possible that suits not working quit as effective as it should
PS should continue to write articles that describe the nuclear power plants operations including how heat is generated.
Show us all kinds of photos of the core, the fuel rods, the food, the spent fuel and their storage pools.
Which elements are electron rich ?
Is there literally a factory that enriches uranium ? Describe how it is done at a factory.
Tell us how fuel is shipped from a factory to a plant.
If uranium is denser than lead, is it used in place of lead ?
Used to be a commercial oil field diver and never considered 'nuclear diving' as an option.
But for those who are or who do I would like to pass on some info if it's not known and that is of a 'product' in development.
Not available yet but maybe a few trees could be shaken...
The drug is called Ex-Rad and will help prior and after exposure to radiation. I'm supposing that it may make otherwise harmful or lethal doses 'nonlethal'?
Here are some urls:
Company that is developing it.
All The Best!
I believe that electrical appliance such as cooking ranges give off enough EMF radiation to cause cancer
In Poland we have one of the biggest coal power plants in Europe. Ashes generated daily contain radioactive materials that are equivalent to more than a years supply of uranium for a nuclear power plant of the same output power. Still believe that nuclear is the worst there is?
Every power generation method has it's drawbacks.
Fossil fuels generate tons of CO2 and generate acid rains.
Water power plants on dams are ecological nightmare - mud accumulated on the bottom of the lake is pretty much toxic, not to mention disrupting movement of fish in the river.
I haven't heard anything bad about tidal generators yet, but they haven't been widely used, so they aren't tested yet.
Wind turbines are said to generate sound waves at 10Hz range, causing health problems in populations nearby. They are also responsible for noise pollution and shredding birds to pieces.
Solar power plants can blind birds with reflections from panels etc.
No power generation method is perfect, but since nuclear power is less dependent (and less changing) on nature, it can be better controlled and monitored.
Which elements are neutron rich ?
Just to add a few numbers on relative risks and impacts of various enegy sources.
Fossil fuel (coal and gas) power generation causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every single year (i.e., ~1000 every single day), worldwide. In the US alone, the toll is ~20,000 deaths per year. Fossil power generation is also a leading cause of global warming.
Non-Soviet nuclear power has not caused any public deaths, and has had no measurable impact on public health, over it's entire 50+ year history. Fukushima does nothing to change that, with zero deaths caused, and no projected, measurable public health impact.
As for workers, statistics show that nuclear is one of the safest heavy industries to work in, with worker related injury/death rates equal to working in an office environment. Even wind and solar power have higher worker death rates, per amount of electricity generated, simply due to falls from roofs and wind turbine towers.
Most scientific studies show that, in terms of public health and environmental impacts, coal and oil are by far the worst (with "external costs" of 4-8 cents/kW-hr). Gas is next, at ~1 cent/kW-hr. Nuclear's external costs are similar to those of renewables, at a fraction of a cent/kW-hr (see www.externe.info/). The story is similar for total net CO2 emissions.
Renewables aren't perfect. In fact, for a given amount of power generation, renewables require over 20 times as much steel, 20 times as much concrete, and over 100 times as much land area as nuclear. Not the best option if preserving "nature" (i.e., wilderness, habitats, etc..) is your goal.
It was interesting that such a small sample of divers (it did not sound like more than 100 divers were interviewed, fewer still asked about health problems) turned up a case of thyroid cancer. From a radiation standpoint, thyroid cancer is a telltale form of cancer known to be caused by radioactive releases. Radioactive Iodine 131 attaches to the unprotected thyroid, setting the cancer clock ticking- the reason Iodine tablets were once a part of every best stocked fallout shelter.
I found this to be an interesting article. A family friend was a high risk diver back in the 70's. He claimed he made $20 an hour. Back then that was really something. But then for years I volunteered for a Radiological HAZMAT team that would respond to reactor incidents. No pay there, just the hope that whatever we could do would keep things from getting worse was pay enough.
Laurena, you are wrong, workers have died from radiation exposure at Fukushima.
For those who think that wind and solar are non-polluting, they are not. Large scale solar is more destructive to the environment than coal and it is responsible for regional climate change and desertification that is far worse than the CO2 emitted from coal since CO2 can move. These solar "farms" create heat islands just like cities do. This reduces the rain that falls in that area and makes it hotter.
Wind "farms" create dioxins that then get into the soils, air, and water. They create noise pollution and kill birds and wildlife at record numbers. If they are put in water, they distrupt marine life. You also have to get the materials out of the ground, refine them, and then manufacture the parts. I wonder how many children were poisoned to death in some unseen 3rd world country so we can have a "clean" wind farm? Researcher friends of mine go to these countries and to protect their health, they are in full chemical hazmat suits with air tanks because the air is so toxic. Their estimate, more than 25 kids per month just in 3 small towns. I do not want my clean, safe electricity stained with blood. Do you?
The blood stains are worse for those people driving all electric vehicles and hybrids. Think about where the lithium comes from and how those children live and die.
Why is it only the anti-nuclear crowd who feels the need to spread misinformation to cause fear in the public.
Just stop it already.
Between the meltdown of a Reactor just outside of los angeles in the late 50s and up to 3 nuclear blasts a day within sight of Vegas. How did they so villify ANY and ALL radiation?
A 20MW reactor WITHOUT a containment building experienced a meltdown in Los Angeles County, releasing a radioactive cloud over the San Fernando Valley. No unusual levels of cancer (except for that attributed to smoking).
This was far larger release then any of the Japan reactors, and the evacuation was informal (the engineers called family and friends and told them to get the hell out).
The US Government did not admit this until 1989. But all the locals talked about it in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Santa Suzanna Field Laboratory, about 2 miles outside Los Angeles city limits, 30 miles from Downtown Los Angeles.
Sodium reactor experiment
Main article: Sodium Reactor Experiment
The Sodium Reactor Experiment-SRE was an experimental nuclear reactor which operated from 1957 to 1964 and was the first commercial power plant in the world to experience a core meltdown. There was a decades-long cover-up by the US Department of Energy. The operation predated environmental regulation, so early disposal techniques are not recorded in detail. Thousands of pounds of sodium coolant from the time of the meltdown are not yet accounted for.
The reactor and support systems were removed in 1981 and the building torn down in 1999.
I enjoyed reading this. Great article. I like diving, but nuclear diving is not something I would do for a living.
It takes a special breed of person to do the type of work we do. Not only just to do it but do it well. I always like reading these types of stories though. This type of work, inland or offshore, should be one of the more higher paying jobs out there given the amount of risk we take and the sacrifices we make with our families and personal life. Divers all over the U.S. are treated more like commodities or expendable resources than highly skilled and trained professionals. The problem isn't that these energy companies don't have the money to pay us what we are worth. The problem is that they think there is always going to be someone younger and dumber, with something to prove, who is willing to do it for pennies on the dollar. This may be true but unfortunately that's how people get hurt or killed. The one thing every diver has in common is their ego. Maybe that's why they continue to work for pennies. The pay should be more than doubled as far as hourly rate is concerned plus some sort of hazard pay, maybe even depth from surface. Does this sound unreasonable? You're not the one going down. But if you think you can handle it you can borrow my hat while I chill in the A/C.
P.S. Gorski sucks!