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Jumping into the belly of the nuclear beast

Sam Bauman
Appeal Entertainment Editor

Most times when news reports about nuclear power reactors come up, it’s about a problem that the scientists cleverly solved. But not always.

Years ago the Zion Station in northern Illinois was the third dual-reactor nuclear power plant in the Commonwealth Edison network and served Chicago and the northern one-fourth of Illinois.

The two-unit Zion Nuclear Power Station was retired in February 1998. The 25-year-old plant had not been in operation since February 1997, after a control-room operator accidentally shut down Reactor 1 and then tried to restart it without following procedures. Reactor 2 was already shut down for refueling at the time of the incident. Commonwealth Edison concluded that Zion could not produce competitively priced power because it would have cost $435 million in steam generators, which would not pay for themselves before the plant’s operating license expired in 2013.

But mishaps there go back further than 1997. Back in the 1970s the station shut down for maintenance, months before scheduled. I was working for Playboy at the time and spotted an ad asking for “jumpers” to sign up for maintenance work at Zion. I was intrigued and signed up.I filled out paperwork, proved that I was an American citizen and attended four days of training at Zion. Most of my fellow jumpers (so called because the job required one to “jump” into the water pressure reactor vessel to deal with problems) were experienced. Despite rules that limited jumpers to two events per year because of cumulative radiation exposure, most of the young, unemployed, uneducated men had done this job before, three or four times a year (they faked identity papers).

I was a college grad who obviously wasn’t there for the money, not that it was that much, something like $300 for a week’s work. I was “different,” but they accepted me and gave me tips on how to do the job.

The training consisted of lectures on radiation – “it’s like sunburn, you can accumulate too much and get burned” – and demonstrations of the radiation suits we were to wear in the nuclear radiation pressure chamber, where the uranium rods had been pulled back but the radiation lingered on.

The suits included a full body cover, with a helmet attached to an air hose and communication system. These were bulky affairs and looked something like the space suits then in the news. We were to don these suits, walk through a complex system of corridors in the deserted plant to the pressure vessel. There we would be met by a fellow jumper who could stay outside the vessel for an hour or more while we were limited to about nine minutes inside the vessel. He was there to help in emergencies. I drew my number and on the day donned my suit, tested the air hose and telephone system and then began my walk. Eerie, to say the least.

At the platform the jumper met me and pointed to the hatch. I had no idea of what I was to do once in the vessel, but the engineer on the other end of the telephone explained that I was to jump in, take an electric drill with a stiff wire brush on the end and ream out the dents in the water flow pipes.

I jumped in (wriggled is more like it) and the other jumper handed in the drill. The engineer identified the pipes I was to clear by the positions we had studied in class. I did my job, despite the awkward suit and narrow angles involved. I was happily doing my work when the engineer got excited and ordered me out. I’d been there too long.

I clambered out and walked the long walk back from “the belly of the beast,” as I called it. Shucked my radiation suit, signed some papers and got a check. I later wrote about the job for an alternative weekly Chicago newspaper.

Fini, right?

Not quite. Why had the maintenance period been moved up? Rumors and official comments explained that after the earlier maintenance event, something had gone wrong. When they turned on the radiation and the hot water began to flow, there was a strange knocking heard through the control system, unplanned, unknown. The engineers were baffled and debated shutting the system down. But while they debated, the noise gradually went away. And it became clear from an inventory that a large iron bar had been forgotten in the pressure chamber and rattled around until the hot water and chemicals dissolved it. Thus the dents in the pipes.

Well, why am I reporting this story now, years later? Because I had become friends with those other jumpers and I figure someone should thank them for the dangerous and possibly fatal jobs they had done. Who knows how many died of radiation poisoning? No statistics were ever released.

And now after a long hiatus, the nuke industry is reviving. How many jumpers will that require? And will their lives ever be charted? Well, chart it up to unexpected consequences. Who would ever had thought that it would be the Kentucky farmboys who would keep the energy ticking?

• Sam Bauman is the entertainment editor for the Nevada Appeal.