When Scuba Diving Goes Nuclear:Kyra Richter on her life as a nuclear power plant diver
Hi and welcome to the big deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong,it defines some aspect of their life . Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. In this episode I speak with a woman who has spent her career diving in nuclear power plants. Hello, this is Paul Kelway and I'm Jason Elias. , Welcome to the big deep podcast .
Most people who choose diving as a career might tell you that the job puts some pretty hard demands on them, but our next story comes from someone for whom those demands are at the extreme end of the spectrum. In fact, so extreme that in a normal day of work, she runs the risk of nuclear contamination.
My name is Kyra Richter and I was a commercial nuclear diver.
What does that actually mean? What do you do?
So what a nuclear diver does could be looked at as being a glorified pool cleaner. You're basically just cleaning a lot of systems and structures in a power plant. But there's also technical jobs, so a lot of modifications can only take place with water in the system as you can't drain them installing new equipment. A lot of inspections, welding, t here's a little bit of everything there.
So would you mind talking to me through some of the general things you have to do to keep that plant running? For example, I know that you're up near Lake Michigan and somehow the plant pulls water in from the Lake at times, and what that means for you.
In order to operate a plant, you have to show that you're always ready to provide cooling, and that is the most essential thing. You got to keep that reactor covered with water and the primary system water comes from the outside.That's where that Lake water or sea water or river water comes in. So you end up with pretty long tunnels that draw water all the way from Lake Michigan into the tunnels that go underneath the condensers. So that does end up being like a penetration dive. It's very similar to cave diving in that sense. You're in places that have no light whatsoever. And because we're drawing water from open sources, you're going to end up drawing in whatever lives in that water. Mussels have become a bit of a pest and you have to clean those surfaces because how do you inspect the integrity of a structure if you can't look at the structure, right?
So, you dive through these tubes and darkness? And how narrow are these tubes?
they're actually pretty wide because I have to let it in a big, big volume, you need a lot of water. So your tunnel has to be very wide. Just some plants have channels that are pretty narrow and there's been somewhere, yes, only the smaller people can fit into. But in general they're very big. They're just long and deep and dark.
What attracted you to this job to doing this kind of diving?
What I've come to love about commercial diving was that I have a curiosity for things. I mean show me a component or a machine and I just always loved looking at the exploded view of it. What makes it? What puts it together? So it all started when I was cave diving and then I became cave certified. So I was inside a cave and we were pretty far in, and this is one of those things that just get narrower as you go down. Call me crazy. But I started going in and the opposite of fear or reservation that you would have about doing something, and it was like, Oh, this is what I want to do. I want to actually be working. I want to be challenged. I want to be doing something, solving something, fixing something.
It's interesting because you talk about cave diving, that freaks a lot of other people out and for you it actually kind of engaged you. And I wonder if that prepared you for being able to dive in a nuclear power plant? Because anyone listening to this will probably never, ever have that kind of unique life experience, could you talk me through one of the dives that you took into a plant?
I had to do a dive at a power plant, the only way I can describe it, it looks like "Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome" . In order to get into it, it's a tunnel, maybe 18 inches wide and you have to crawl through it and then once you cross through it, you're at elevation. You're about 30 feet above the water level. So they have to build a scaffold structure. You go down these ladders and they build a little area there where you can put your dive equipment and then you go and dive inside. It's all made of metal and it's got stainless steel hangers and everything underwater poking out. And it's a circle. Picture, a hollowed donut and you're diving inside the donut. But it's contaminated. Water was really truly dirty. You could not see. It was not built with the intention of having people come in and do maintenance on it. Maybe we think it's not going to be in use as long as it is, we will advance. It was just full of rust and very thin silt. Over the years I'd discovered humanity can be a little bit arrogant or overconfident, building something thinking this is never going to break or need it to be fixed. So they make me go all the way to the other end of the donut and so we can clean the nuclear reactor.
So it's in the center of this?!
Yes, that's correct. The nuclear reactors in the c enter, but it's not part of the system and there's pipes connecting that. Now when I did work in the boiling water reactor, I did have an instance, w ell I did get contaminated. But because there's so many controls in that kind of plant, there's less likelihood that you w ould get contaminated. And the reason I got contaminated was because of my insistence on having long hair. I actually got a strand of hair that got caught between the helmet and the helmet seal o n the outside. So then I go diving a nd my little strand of hair was floating in the dirty water for about three hours. The radiation protection technician w ith h olding a pair of scissors going, we're g oing t o cut your hair or you can wash it with ivory soap. And I said, I will wash it with ivory soap. And I h ad to wash it five times, but it came out. But that's very, very rare.
That's amazing because I'm sure I would've panicked and been just cutting my hair off. Whereas you are much calmer about it and said, Oh , you know, I think I'll just take a shower. But there is a story I'd like to go back to. It's a story you told me when I first contacted you before we did the interview and you told me of a time that you'd actually dived in the tank that usually contained the nuclear rods and you said it had had an impact on you. Could you tell us that story now?
This dive that was so...life changing was swimming in the spent fuel pool water, in what they call the refueling pool. But I have to be clear, it's not fueled. It could never be fueled with you in there. So what you do is you empty out the reactor, you defuel it. And what I was actually there to do with something very menial. You know when you look at a reactor, if you think of it as the pressure cooker, because that's basically what it is. And they remove the top of that pressure cooker and you put it in a pool of water, you have to flood everything with water. And one point we had to do some work on that top of the pressure cooker. So you are in the same pool of water as a reactor. And at one point you've got a little bit of a lull and I'm waiting. And I just turned around and I realized I could see the opening to the reactor. That moment of wonder. That was t his feeling of I'm in this pool and i t's stainless steel, so it's all shiny and clean. But then you look 20 feet away from where I was, and there's a perfect round opening that leads into the reactor. But that pressure cooker is there. And when they dimmed the lights, you do see that glow. It's a beautiful, beautiful violet blue glow. And i t, and I just, I think that moment I just was transformed into a little kid. That's when I turned around and I looked, a nd I took that moment t o step back and just r ealize where I was. And I s aid, you know, I c ould tell you this for sure. I always felt like I wanted to be able to do something special. And that was that moment. It was just so impressive, just so big, everything around you, it's just everything that mankind has done. So I really liked that moment.
Finally, we often end our interviews by asking our guests a single open ended question. What does the ocean mean to you?
It means to me this connectedness with , with our planet, everything. Yeah. To me it means life. And I wasn't very confident person. I'm a little bit shy, but when you go in the water, none of that matters and nothing is judging you. And you can just be the most beautiful, graceful creature there is there. For me, it's just, I feel like there's a connection between me and water that will always be there. I love that.
Thank you for listening to the big deep podcast. Next time on big deep , "It feels amazing to communicate with this wild animal. They have these very powerful front flippers so they're super adapted, turning whenever they want to turn and they were so graceful and beautiful. It does remind me of ballet in so many ways. It's almost like seeing a painting to see them move". We really appreciate you being with us on this journey to the big deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what you're doing, please make sure to subscribe, like and comment on our show in iTunes, overcast, SoundCloud or wherever you catch your podcasts. But those subscribes and links really make a difference. The more info on our guests, extra audio and photos as well as updates on anything you've heard. You can find a lot more content at our website, big deep.com plus if you know someone you think we should talk to, just let us know what the big deep website is. We are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our worlds oceans . Thanks again for joining us.
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