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Careers in Nuclear Diving: Helping to Ensure Power Plants Stay Safe

December 30, 2015

Can you imagine arriving to work each day, driving through security checkpoints, parking in a secure lot, walking through metal detectors, then having your identity confirmed via retinal scan or hand scan prior to making your way into your work area?  As jobs for divers go, this one is super intense.  If you are interested in a good career in which you can use your diving skills and make a steady income, a job as a nuclear diver might just have your name on it.  Let’s take a closer look.

Nuclear Power Plants: The Basics

Whether we like it or not, nuclear power plants are here to stay.  They provide clean energy, decrease the need for rapidly diminishing coal supplies from strip mining operations that often access coal via the disturbing practice of mountaintop removal, and are maintained in a manner which keeps everyone as safe as possible.  When you think of nuclear energy, you might get flashes of the bombing of Hiroshima, or you might think of the disaster that took place in Chernobyl.  While there is always the possibility of an accident at a nuclear power plant,  there are plenty of safety measures in place, some of which are maintained by divers.

In a nutshell, nuclear power plants produce electricity by the conversion of thermal energy.  The heat source for this thermal energy comes from one or more nuclear reactors, which sit in huge pools of water, producing steam which drives turbines that in turn connect to generators which produce electricity.  The steam which is produced does not add to the world’s pollution problem, and while radioactive spent fuel is dangerous, it is often reprocessed in order to reduce the amount of high level nuclear waste generated as a result of energy production. 

While there is no doubt that green energy from wind and solar production will someday become more prevalent, nuclear power infrastructure is here to stay during the meantime. 

Nuclear Divers

Highly skilled technicians equipped with the necessary tools to work on nuclear components, these divers are normally trained as commercial divers prior to gaining employment with a power plant.  While some nuclear plants keep divers on staff, others contract out to commercial diving service providers.

Before gaining access to nuclear power plants, divers must first be cleared by the FBI to ensure facilities are not subject to terrorism.  The pay typically starts at about $30,000 USD annually, however, the most experienced atomic divers can make more than $100,000 per year.  The work is sensitive and stressful, which could explain why many commercial divers would rather work on offshore oil rigs than commute to a local nuclear power plant for work.

Prior to missions beginning, lengthy briefings, sometimes taking hours, occur.  Each and every motion is carefully planned and discussed, and once the entire team has concluded this process, divers are helped into their suits by a team of minders.

As reactor pools are filled with hot water, divers wear specially constructed cooling suits equipped with tiny tubes that carry cold water around the body to prevent overheating.  Rather than using SCUBA tanks, these divers use surface supplied air, and are connected to their minders via thick umbilicals which supply both cold flowing water and air, and which are equipped with a number of wires that connect to monitoring devices that are worn on various parts of the body.  An outer layer of vulcanized rubber with attached gloves and boots plus a full helmet equipped with a communications system completes the ensemble.

Nuclear reactors vary in size, from between 14 and 20 feet wide, and between 35 to 70 feet tall.  Housed in concrete structures reinforced with steel, they are shut down for maintenance and refueling operations, and filled with about 500,000 gallons of water that protects divers against radiation and provides further cooling.  During operations, pressurized systems hold only about 35,000 gallons of water, and boiling water systems hold about 60,000 gallons, enabling continuous steam production.  Even shut down, the reactors heat up the water quickly; the average maintenance dive takes place in 100 degree Fahrenheit water.

While recreational divers and some commercial divers measure dives in minutes and air consumption, nuclear divers measure assignments by the minute as well as by millirems, which are a measure of radiation exposure.  The average X-ray delivers about 40 millirems, and most people are exposed to about 300 millirems of radiation from different sources each year.  Some divers receive hundreds of millirems during various projects, despite safety measures.  Current government regulations allow divers to be exposed to 5,000 millirems annually, but divers try to keep their numbers much lower, usually aiming for about 2,000 millirems.

Divers use a variety of tools to accomplish their jobs, including welding equipment and cutting torches.  Sometimes perched on underwater chairs that provide additional protection from fuel rods below, they work to replace underwater stainless steel tubes, sometimes cutting and threading new cylinders while underwater, tightening bolts, and working on various components.  Minders ensure dives are aborted at the first sign of trouble, sometimes hauling divers up by their umbilicals.  They pay close attention to dosimeters to ensure radiation levels do not get too high; for these workers, as well as for divers, there is never an opportunity to relax while on the job.

Diving equipment, including the suit worn for nuclear diving, weighs around 100 pounds, more than twice what your wetsuit and tanks worn for recreational diving tends to weigh.  Part of that equipment includes around a dozen dosimeters, worn on the arms, knees, chest, feet, back, and hands.  These dosimeters track exposure in real time; if they fail, minders remove divers from the water immediately, as there is no way to monitor safety without them. 

Once a dive has been completed, divers are carefully decontaminated, and radiation levels are carefully monitored.  Divers who get too much radiation are treated.

If you are interested in working as a nuclear diver, you’ll need to keep your background clean, and be ready to explain any legal problems you may have encountered to the FBI.  In addition, you will need to be skilled and qualified in many aspects of commercial diving; the better trained you are, the higher your chances of landing a high paying position.  Most of all, you will need to be physically and mentally prepared for intense job stress; on the flip side, you’ll never be bored.

 

 

 

 

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