The Time: Early morning after our daily 0700 briefing when we discussed the scheduled activities for the day. Four months into it, at the tail end of the project, completion is just a day away.
The Place: Top floor of the Reactor Building of a nuclear power plant, working in the Spent Fuel Pool. We call this the Refuel Floor because this is where the action is during refueling outages. We’re talking high profile jobs due to high radiation and high contamination levels. The fact that we’re opening up the reactor core to take used uranium fuel rods out and put new fuel in is chump change compared to what’s been stored in the Spent Fuel Pool. Some of the equipment we got out of there was the original Control Rod Blades from inception of the plant. Granted it’s been decaying away under water all these years (20+) and it’s not nearly as hot (meaning very high dose) as it once was, but we were still dealing with 10,000 Rem/hr which in laymen’s terms can kill you if you received acute exposure from it, if it ever came out of the water. Water is an excellent shield for neutrons and gamma radiation. Can you feel it? The excitement, I mean. Of course, you can’t see, taste, or smell radiation. So we have to rely on our instrumentation, skill, knowledge (or better yet common sense), and most importantly each other. Especially on the Refuel Floor.
The Project: Cleaning the Spent Fuel Pool (performed every 10 years). To give you an idea, looking at an underwater camera, it looked like the Titanic with soot layering everything. Granted we have controls in place. For instance, Foreign Material Exclusion zone, Chemistry department routinely sampling, recirculating system that continuously cleans up the pool. Just to name a few. But it wasn’t just the vacuuming that needed to be done. We were also cutting, shearing, and packing the highly radioactive pieces of equipment that used to be in the core and putting them in shielded liners for shipping offsite to a burial ground. All of which had to be handled underwater with long handle tools or with specialized underwater equipment. At some point in time that liner and specialized equipment had to come out of the water too.
The Players: Reactor Maintenance (hands on people), Health Physics (radiation protection), Laborers (aka Deconners).
Let’s talk about the players for little bit. Reactor Maintenance, I like to call them Cowboys. Nobody can touch them. They know they can get away with anything. In my experience on the road, some of them didn’t care if they plowed you over to get the job done. You really had to watch out for number one to make sure you were safe. I’ve had a lot of men talk down to me just because I’m a young woman (well, not so young anymore). No matter. I learned a lot. My favorite saying to one particular yay-who that was giving me a hard time, was “I briefed you coming in here today; I can debrief you going out”. He turned two shades of red. Love it!
I had a good working relationship with the guys on this project. They would ask me first before doing anything. Usually. But they were respectful and yet joked with me letting me know that I was a part of the group. They explained things to me and actually were, for the most part, good little cowboys. We had an understanding. We were there to take care of each other. Even though, I may have been a little peon in their eyes, they knew I had a key role to play. I was there for a reason. To keep them safe. And vice versa.
My partner in crime, Joel, is the highest seniority person in our HP department. I wasn’t too sure about him when we started. Never worked that closely with him before. You ever have the experience where you fell in love with your captor? Not quite like that, but I have a lot of respect for him now. I would do anything for him, work-wise. Honestly, I think he feels the same way. It’s almost like we’ve been through hell and back. We survived!
The Laborers. Heh. Well, we can’t be too picky now can we? The two infamous Laborers were…Beavis and Butthead. No, seriously. One day a new hire had to come to the floor and replace one of them and even he knew…he said “I’m here to replace Mark, where do I sit?” He’ll always be remembered for that quote. If it’s one thing that I can’t stand, it’s pure laziness. So that was a challenge. Another thing I can’t stand is when they can’t think for themselves. I don’t mind someone asking questions. In fact, we encourage it. But come on! There’s a point where you have to say “are you kidding?” (Should I use paper towels or cloth to wipe that down? Get my drift?)
(Back to the story.)
The Game: I’m the only HP on the floor. I don’t recall where my partner went, but it’s a little difficult to do this job without outside support. I’m dressed in protective clothing inside the contaminated area with Reactor Maintenance. There were three of them and only one of me…see where I’m going with this? I’m on one side of the pool with “Skittles” and the other two are on the opposite side of the pool. Skittles wanted to pull up some buckets that were left in the bottom of the pool. Some of them looked empty.
I was there with my meter to verify he didn’t pull anything out of the water that was too “hot”. As I’m doing this, the other two guys are really intensely working on something that I can’t see. There’s a bridge over the pool that we do a lot of work from and it was blocking my view. So I’m peeking under the bridge watching them, making sure they’re not pulling anything up out of the water (they forget themselves sometimes). Skittles is hoisting up the cable with the hook to the bucket. He brings it up fast. I told him to slow down and wait. I check my meter. Something’s not right. Mama would be proud of me. I’m using my Error Prevention Tools. I’m Taking Two or using the STAR method. STAR (Stop Think Act Review. Or as we say…Sh*t That Ain’t Right).
My meter was saying there was a wide range of 700 mrem/hr dose rate field over the bucket (which was still underwater mind you). I showed this to Skittles and he said, "Nah, that’s the hook, remember, it’s got a spot on it that’s reading 700?" I said "Noooo, that would be a little spot, this is all over the bucket."
So I get my underwater meter and drop it in. Holy Toledo! It was 240 Rem/hr! (Note the change in units of measure here, folks. 240 Rem/hr is = 240,000 mrem/hr). So I calmly told him put it back down. He straight-faced asked me if he could pull it out of the water. (li’l sh*t) I said noooo…then he’s laughing at my expression. Whatever. I feel like I’ve been talking to my 2 year old. By they way, there was a oxidized small hook in the bucket. Obviously, irradiated, but I wonder what the history is on that thing?
In the meantime, I look across the pool at the other guys and they are trying to shove a clothe-looking type thing into a small cylinder (actually, one of our TriNuke filters, if anyone's curious) and it’s literally falling to pieces and deteriorating in the water. Little floaties are coming up from it and I was concerned about little particles coming to the surface of the water that have the potential of having very high radiation coming from it. So I look at Skittles and I say “What are you guys trying to do to me?” I point to those guys and quickly make my way around the pool to check the top of the water surface for any high dose rates.
I should’ve yelled at them, but I didn’t. I did tell them to stop. I wanted to say "what the %&*!" Instead I just asked them "what are you doing?" They explained to me the item was a filter sock that was used many moons ago and they needed to get rid of it and they needed to contain it so it wouldn’t do just this thing where it’s breaking apart. Come to find out that sock was reading 90 Rem/hr underwater.
At this time, I’m ticked. I can’t believe all this time we’ve been cleaning up the pool that they forgot these pretty important items. They should’ve put these items in the cask liners before we shipped them. Now we have no way of getting rid of it and they will have to stay in the pool until the next time (10 years from now).
Skittles says "What...do you think we're out to sabotage you?"
I said "uh, yeah!"