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Into the bowels of a nuclear reactor

They’re called ‘jumpers’ and they go where no one else will


Deep in the bowels of the nuclear power plant, mere feet from the reactor core, sit the steam generators–areas so radioactive that only specially trained workers are allowed to enter.

They’re allowed to stay inside for only a few minutes before exposure to dangerously high levels of radiation threatens their safety.

And yet someone must enter in order to install a dam that stops the water from re-entering the generator while repairs and inspections are made.

"Nobody wants that job," said Brett Allen, an instructor at Cuesta College who heads a PG&E training program. "It’s like a lifeguard specializing in 100-foot-wave rescues. You may not live as long."

But just as there are those who revel at the chance to engage in high-risk rescues, there is a specialized breed of nuclear power plant workers who enjoy going where few dare to go. Officially they are known as nozzle dam technicians, but to those in the industry, they are the "jumpers."

Inside Containment, the large dome-shaped building that houses the reactor and four steam generators, the jumpers put on two sets of protective clothing and a hooded bubble suit. Dressed in the plastic yellow suits, the jumpers look primed for outer space.

In actuality, they are ready to jump (hence the name) head first through a "manway," a tight-fitting passage that leads to the generator channel head. The bowl-shaped channel head is a stifling-hot area about half the size of a Volkswagen bus.

Within these cramped confines the jumper must assemble the three-piece nozzle dam and install it over a 42-inch diameter pipe that connects to the reactor. All the while the jumper is fully aware that if he goes too fast he may screw up, and if he goes too slow he is increasing his radiation exposure.

The monumental screw-up would be for a jumper to fall in the hole where the nozzle dam is placed–the hole that leads to the reactor.

"It’s a long way down there," said Jo Brasseaux, 39, one of the only female jumpers in the industry. "It’s really, really scary."

If someone were to fall down there, another jumper would have to enter the channel head, reach into the pipe and pull the person out–thus exposing both of them to amounts of radiation nobody wants to talk about.

"It’s a possibility, but we don’t think about it," Brasseaux said.

Mike Nielsen, a jumper from Grover Beach, concurs. His attitude is, "If you’re that worried about it, you shouldn’t be here."

At least one jumper, 21-year-old Jesse Powers, knows firsthand that falling in the hole is not an impossibility. The Central Coast native fell into the pipe during mockup, a training session held before each jump in which they practice for about a week on a full-scale model of a steam generator. According to Powers, at some plants the pipe is situated in such a way that if you slip upon entry into the channel head, "You’re going down there."

A far more pressing concern, however, is the amount of radiation jumpers are exposed to.

Just five minutes in the generator can expose the jumper to 1 rem of radiation, the equivalent of 50 chest X-rays. A rem is the measure of cell-damaging radiation absorbed by the body.

"Jumpers get a good dose," said Nielsen. "We get more than anybody."Nevertheless, he said it is only the new guys who worry about it. Nielsen, who is 58, used to add to their fright by telling them, "I’ve been doing this three years, and there’s nothing wrong with me. And I’m 25 years old." Eventually he was told, "Stop that! You’re scaring the kids!"

The seasoned jumpers take comfort in knowing that they are exposed to far less radiation than the limits set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC limits worker exposure to 5 rem per year, the equivalent of 250 chest X-rays. Most plants limit workers to half that amount.

There are those in the scientific community who contend that no amount of radiation is safe. Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an activist organization, puts out a pamphlet called "No Safe Dose." In it, Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, dubbed the father of health physics, says, "There is no dose of radiation so low that the risk of a malignancy is zero."

An even more insidious risk to jumpers and others working near the generator is internal contamination from radioactive particles. Gary Olson, a former utility worker at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, said that when platform workers remove the manway cover, the sealing services have to be cleaned with a wire wheel before reassembly. As they are cleaned, clouds of radioactive particles can be seen. These particles are particularly dangerous if ingested. While a jumper lessens his radiation exposure the moment he exits the generator, an inhaled particle can become permanently lodged in the body. "You can walk away from radiation," Olson said, "but the internal contamination stays with you."

Not surprising, the meek are not drawn to the profession. By their own admission, jumpers are a highly competitive, fearless lot. They take pride in the fact that they are doing something most people would not have the courage to do, and they genuinely enjoy their work.

"I still get a thrill when I break the shine," said Bruce Courtier, who has been a jumper for 15 years. "The shine" is the invisible cloak of radiation that enshrouds those who enter the generator channel head.

"It’s quite the adrenaline rush," said Brian Ley, 41, a jumper from Los Oso. He is a self-employed contractor who takes time out to jump because he considers it fun.

"It’s my working vacation," he said. "It’s a chance to travel and have a good time with people with similar competitive, addictive personalities."

The competitiveness comes out most acutely during mockup. The jumpers surreptitiously pull out stopwatches and time each other’s entry and exits into the channel head. This is where the most job-related injuries are sustained as they all strive to be top gun.

Lewis Deane, 49, founder of Nozzle Dam Specialists (NDS), an elite group of jumpers (to which all of the aforementioned jumpers belong), said he has cracked ribs while going head-to-head with another jumper. Others have dislocated shoulders and broken wrists.

"For jumpers," Deane said, "no matter what the situation, being second best is unacceptable."

And that is exactly the mindset it takes to make it in an industry with no room for error. If somebody’s performance falls short, it means another jumper is going to have to enter the channel head and fix the problem. Brasseaux said when she’s in the generator the only thing she thinks about is doing her job right. "I don’t want somebody to come in behind me and do my job over," she said. "You don’t want that other person to suck up your dose."

As it is, jumpers can only work three or four jobs per year before they are "cooked out of work." They travel from plant to plant during the spring and fall refueling outages, with each job lasting an average of two to three weeks. The pay ranges from $18 to $20 an hour, plus travel expenses and per diem.

While it only takes a few minutes to install or remove a nozzle dam, jumpers net about $1,000 a week since they are also paid for travel time, mockup training, and time spent at the plant waiting to perform. Subsequently, if a jumper has to make an extra dive into the generator due to another’s carelessness, it’s going to cost him substantially if the added dose means one less job.

"Habitual ineptitude is not tolerated," Deane said.

That is why NDS members prefer to work with their own. They are the hardcore jumpers, the ones who repeatedly surface during outage season as opposed to what Deane refers to as the "part-time dabblers and wannabes." "Jumpers are the ones you call to enter the belly of the ‘hi-rad beast,’ and rely upon to get the job done right the first time," he said.

Jumpers are also the ones you want to hang with after hours. They know how to work, and they know how to play.

"I never had to buy a beer when the jumpers were in the bar," noted one nuclear worker.

Brasseaux and Ley both laughingly recalled the time two new jumpers, dubbed the Jersey Boys, were giving Brasseaux a hard time in a bar.

"They were just bagging on Jo," Ley said. They soon learned that Brasseaux can hold her own against any male.

She told the bartender to give one of them a shot and her something nonalcoholic that looked the same. After he was "pretty well lit," she told his buddy to give her their room key. When he demurred, she threatened to do to him what she had in mind for his friend. He promptly handed over the key. After the guy passed out on his bed, she gave him a full makeover, complete with lipstick, rouge, and fingernail polish. The tough-talking jumper never bothered her again.

Brasseaux said they all like to play tricks on each other, and hers ranked as the best one for a while. "They’re harmless," she said. "If you’re not cool with it, we won’t mess with you."

Ley said there’s a lot of downtime on the job, which provides ample opportunity for joking around. "It’s not for thin-skinned people," he warned. Brasseaux agreed. "If you can roll with the punches, take some criticism, it’s the best place to be. If you wear your feelings on your shoulder, it’s not the best place."

Had Brasseaux been thin-skinned, she wouldn’t have lasted a day. Her first day on the job she received a frosty reception during mockup.

"There were a bunch of guys up there, and I was infringing on their territory," she said. She jumped right in there and got as banged up as the rest of them. "I had bruises on top of bruises," she said. When they all hit the bar afterward, the guys took note of the fact that she never complained, and embraced her as one of their own.

Brasseaux is one of the few females who have been able to succeed in the male-dominated world of jumping. One of the reasons is that most women can’t manage the heavy lifting that is required. That’s not a problem for Brasseaux, who is a competitive power lifter.

"She’s tough as nails," Deane said. "Tough enough to hang with the big dogs and remain one of the best." No idle compliment coming from a former military man.

Brasseaux said she learned a lot of the tricks of the trade from Ley, who took it upon himself to mentor her.

"He spent some serious time with me," she said. "He taught me a lot." When Brasseaux announced she was getting a biohazard tattoo for her 39th birthday, Ley and another jumper offered to go with her and get tattoos of their own.

"It was serious brother bonding," she said. "I’ll never forget it." While it was the sixth or seventh tattoo for Brasseaux (she’s lost count), for the guys it was a first. "I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present," she said.

The camaraderie is one of the primary reasons NDS members keep returning each outage season.

"We all get together, hang out, go to the bar," Powers said. "It’s what keeps a lot of us in the business." Courtier said there is a loyalty among jumpers he hasn’t found anywhere else. "Teamwork takes on a whole new meaning here," he said.

In fact, some plants have decided to use jumping as an exercise in teamwork. Diablo Canyon is one of the 20 or so nuclear power plants that have its managers and people with desk jobs volunteer to jump.

"It’s an opportunity for them to do something that’s important to the overall outage, but doesn’t take a lot of time," Jeff Lewis, the PG&E spokesperson for Diablo Canyon said. Over the past five years the Central Coast plant has phased out the use of jumpers. "We found we had people working for us who had the time and could do it," Lewis said. He said he himself has jumped four or five times.

According to Lewis, the volunteers at Diablo Canyon enter the steam generators wearing paper-based suits and face shields rather than the more protective bubble suits. He said without the bubble suits the employees are able to move faster, consequently reducing radiation exposure. The professional jumpers, on the other hand, would rather have the hooded bubble suits, which help protect them from ingesting radioactive particles. "There’s not a jumper worth their salt that wouldn’t give their eye teeth for a bubble suit," Deane said.

The jumpers also scoff at the idea of management types turning their profession into a team-building regimen.

"Every once in a while their inexperience coils around and bites them," Deane said. He mentioned one instance in which a utility company had its own people install the dam, only to have contaminated water pour out of the manway onto the lower containment area as if a dam wasn’t even present. "This has never happened to a single experienced, professional jumper," he said.

Deane attributes the practice of plants using their own people to concern with the bottom line.

"Unfortunately, bean counters responding to more demanding and shortsighted shareholders are driving many of the management decisions today. So they’ll continue to test the limits until their bubble bursts, only to discover too late that we’ve all gone the way of the range-riding cowboy."

Indeed, there are only 10 active NDS members nationwide, and they are the last of a dying breed.

Many professional jumpers move on to full-time jobs or they get married and quit because their spouses are concerned about the radiation exposure. Brasseaux has experienced firsthand the problems that occur when the demand for jumpers exceeds the supply. She tore a rotator cuff in mockup after spending the day pulling a couple of 300-pound guys out of the manway. She said there used to be height and weight requirements, but now the agencies that do the hiring and placing of jumpers are "picking up anybody they can."

Strangely enough, this almost sounds like a return to the days when jumpers were culled from bars and unemployment lines. Numerous stories abound of nuclear placement agencies preying upon the down-and-out back in the ’80s–the Wild, Wild West days of the nuclear industry, when 12 rem a year was the limit. Unsuspecting souls were given a few hours of training, suited up, and sent into the steam generator where they were allowed to soak up as much radiation as federal law permitted. They were then handed a fistful of cash and escorted out the door.

Nowadays nuclear power plants are required to give workers information on radiation exposure. Many employee handbooks downplay the risk by pointing out that radiation is safer than smoking or other high-risk endeavors.

Mike Ledo, a former health physics technician in the industry, said that radiation is not as dangerous as the public perceives, nor is it as safe as the nuclear industry makes it out to be.

"Remember," he said mockingly, "radiation is safer than driving a motorcycle at 100 miles an hour into a coal mine with no helmet while smoking a cigarette. It is an acceptable risk."

For the dedicated jumpers, it is an acceptable risk. Ley said he’ll keep on jumping "until they take the fun out of it." And the 46-year-old Courtier said, "Although I am now doing other work too, I will always, as long as I can hang, be there to install a nozzle dam." Æ

Shawna Galassi injured her ankle while working on this story and can’t jump.

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